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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 4th October 2011

Sometimes finding a topic for this blog is about taking two, or more, apparently unrelated things and seeing similarities in them. It is for the reader to decide if those similarities are real or just my desperation to find something to keep me on course to produce a blog post every day.

Yesterday, the Sacramento Bee ran an article about the use of Toxicodendron diversilobum, poison oak, to protect a Native American burial ground from thieves. And, at present, I’m reading ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’ by Deborah Blum.

As with most common names, not everyone would agree that poison oak refers to Toxicodendron diversilobum. This species is found in the western United States and, for those in the east, Toxicodendron pubescens is poison oak. To try and distinguish them, diversilobum is referred to as Pacific poison oak and pubescens is Atlantic poison oak.

Whatever the names, both plants produce urushiol an oil that produces severe contact dermatitis for many people. I would argue that the use of ‘poison’ in the common names is wrong. There are people who have absolutely no reaction to urishiol so, to me, that makes it an allergenic rather than a poison. I expect poisons to have predictable effects on humans or other species. But, obviously, poison oak, like poison ivy which also contains urishiol, is not a name that is going to be changed.

I don’t have any figures for the proportion of the population that is harmed by poison oak but it is high enough for the expectation to be that the plant will cause harm. And that is why the Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority planted poison oak, along with brambles and other spiky plants, around a Native American burial ground that it has a duty to protect for thieves.

There are rhymes about identifying urishiol bearing plants, ‘leaves of three let them be’ and, every year, there are plenty of printed articles and blog posts about how to identify these plants when out in the country but the fact that many people still suffer very unpleasant allergic reactions shows that not everyone out in the country can identify these plants.

Poison oak as a barrier to access will deter those who recognise it but for those who don’t it may just cause them quite considerable harm. And that brings me to Deborah Blum’s latest book.

I’m less than a quarter through it and, I’m pretty sure, I’ll want to write about it, especially the choice of title, at a later date so I won’t say too much about the book itself. What interests me, today, is an article written by Ms Blum in February 2010 about what she discovered when conducting her research for the book.

Prohibition of alcohol for human consumption was introduced in the USA on 1st January 1920 but its introduction had been expected for long enough for illegal manufacturers to be well set up to fill the void left when legitimate producers and operators were forced to close down.

There was, undoubtedly, quite a lot of smuggling of alcoholic drinks into the USA but, mostly, the market was satisfied by illicit production within the country. (It occurs to me that today there is a lot of focus on the smuggling of Cannabis sativa, especially from Mexico, into the USA but that the home-grown product is as significant. I won’t, however, try and add a third leg to this post.)

Alcohol was, and is, an important raw material for many manufacturing processes so it remained readily available in the USA even under prohibition. The problem is that alcohol for human consumption is ethyl alcohol whereas industrial alcohol is methyl alcohol and is substantially more toxic that its ethyl cousin. As early as January 1920 deaths from methyl alcohol poisoning were being reported from all areas of the USA.

When I wrote that methyl alcohol was ‘readily available’ I should have added ‘if you were willing to steal to get it’ because by the mid-1920s around 60 million gallons were being stolen each year. And that was when the federal government decided that, rather than try and reduce the threat to US citizens, it would deliberately adulterate industrial alcohol to make it more dangerous. The theory was that, if the number of people dying from methyl alcohol poisoning increased, people would be discouraged from drinking.

Of course, to be discouraged from drinking they would have to know that what they were being offered was more dangerous than it had been before and, since the government kept its intervention secret, that information could only come about when the number of deaths rose sufficiently for people to become wary.

Now, of course, there is a difference in scale between making a lethal poison available to the whole population and planting some allergenic bushes around a remote burial ground but is there a difference in intent?