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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 6th November 2011

On 8th October, I wrote about an incident in Kooralbyn, Queensland, in which over twenty horses died in a very short space of time. At that time, only the Hendra virus had been eliminated as a possible cause with all other poisons, including plant poisoning, still being considered.

I didn’t expect a plant poison to be implicated and wrote about it as an example of the sort of story that often doesn’t reach an easily available conclusion. I complained, in that entry, that initial reports of a poisoning incident usually had speculation about a possible clause but it was much less likely that the final outcome of an incident would be reported.

It occurred to me that I could be guilty of the same thing if I didn’t write about the latest news from Australia on this incident.

Early in October a total of 22 horses died on a ranch in Queensland, Australia. They were so-called ‘quarter’ horses, that is, they were lodgers being cared for by someone in return for payment from the owner.

Within three days, sixteen horses died or had to be put down and, over the following days, a further six were lost. The Queensland authorities looked at all possible causes of the deaths and reported, on November 3rd, that the investigation had concluded that the animals died either from botulism in the soil or scrub ticks. The Chief Biosecurity Officer for Queensland said it was impossible to give a complete determination between the two since the symptoms produced are very similar.

The horses were seen to be heavily infested with ticks and the news report infers that botulism was found in the soil so either could have caused the fatal poisonings. It seems that Biosecurity Queensland believe that everything possible has been done to identify the cause and it cannot get any closer than saying it was one of the two. (Though it doesn’t say it, I would have thought that both could have played a role but we’ll never know.)

It seems that this will not be the end of the matter. The man who was looking after the horses and their owner sent samples of hair from some of the horses to an American laboratory. This laboratory, apparently, found high levels of heavy metals in the hair and, as a result, the two men involved are unhappy with the conclusions reached by Biosecurity Queensland.

The official investigation ruled out heavy metals as a possible cause so the American lab’s results are odd. I suspect that the story will rumble along but I doubt if any further developments will provoke media attention.

As I said, I thought I should write this up rather than leaving the open questions from the 8th October even though it turns out to have no plant component. Saying that demonstrates that I accept the explanation given by the Biosecurity Queensland investigators rather than the ‘heavy metals that could have been present in plants’ hypothesis that is being clung to by those responsible for these animals.

There is one small read across to the broader subject of plant components. Biosecurity Queensland says it can’t be sure which of two possible causes is to blame and the owner of the horses and the man in whose charge they were seem to be saying that this means an entirely different third cause could be responsible. It is a little like the way people take science’s inherent doubt and portray that as justifying totally unscientific beliefs.