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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 1st March 2012

When I wrote about the 2010 American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) Annual Report 4th jan I noted that many substances resulted in a higher number of fatalities than the two directly attributed to plants but that they received much less attention.

A recent report from America concerned an accidental death arising from one such substance. I won’t name the substance at this point for reasons that will become clear later on. The story concerned a 14-year old girl who, without her parents being aware, attended a party where alcohol and cannabis were available and was persuaded to try the substance that took her life.

Interestingly, the AAPCC makes no reference to this substance but figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics for ‘drug poisoning deaths’ show 32 fatalities in 2010 where this substance is mentioned. It is believed that most, if not all, of these deaths were the result of intentional self-harm. And therein lies my reluctance to name the substance concerned.

A number of prominent writers on science and medicine whose reputation is built on exposing instances where data is distorted or suppressed draw a line when it comes to the reporting of suicides. The argument goes that giving too much detail about how a suicide has occurred can lead to copycatting and, therefore, there is a duty to limit the amount of information given in stories about suicides.

The counter argument, of course, is that by raising public awareness of a means of self-harming you increase the chances of someone spotting a person at risk of killing themselves and prevent that happening.

There is, also, the ‘if not me then someone else’ excuse. The story I started with has been reported in the UK media so I wouldn’t be adding that much to knowledge about it if I chose to name it.

But it is the point about whether information should be withheld ‘for the public good’ that I want to consider.

Some months ago the US National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB) became aware that two scientific journals, Science and Nature, were considering for publication work that had shown that the bird flu virus could be modified in the lab to become much more of a threat to human beings. The NSABB requested the journals to publish only edited versions of the research with key information being redacted so that the paper could not be used as a recipe by terrorists.

The journals agreed to defer publication to enable a broader discussion to take place about the right of scientists to publish the results of their work versus their responsibility to not cause, possibly, substantial harm by dangerous knowledge entering the public domain.

That debate has rumbled on in various forms including a meeting in February hosted by the World Health Organisation that felt the full research should be published but that a concerted effort should be made to explain why this was being done.

The researchers concerned have expressed gratitude for the support they have received but pointed out that publication will not take place for some time. In any event, the NSABB request remains in place and the journals concerned have still to give a formal response to it.

It now appears, however, that further work has suggested that the initial results were over-optimistic about the ease with which the virus can be manipulated. It may turn out that there is no reason to be concerned about this knowledge getting into the wrong hands.

Though that may solve this particular problem, it leaves the wider issue open. In general, should information be published freely whether it be about genuine biosecurity concerns or details of substances and methods used by successful suicides? Or, can the public only be trusted so far with potentially harmful information? And, if the latter, who is to decide where the boundaries lie?