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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 10th June 2011 

Well, me and my big mouth. A day ago I wrote ‘Apart from one report of a kitten dying after using a laburnum tree as a scratching post, I don’t think I know of any confirmed case of a pet being poisoned in its own garden.’  Today, I read of a Springer spaniel dying after, it is believed, eating Aconitum napellus, monkshood, in the owner’s garden.

There’s not enough detail of the case to be able to determine why this one dog, out of the hundreds of thousands who, probably, passed within munching range of this plant on the same day, should have chosen to eat it so I won’t comment further on this specific incident.

What interests me, though, is the reaction to it and some of the other stories it throws up. The report came on a forum for dog owners and, I suppose, it is not surprising that a number of posters take the view that everyone should remove monkshood from their gardens in spite of the fact that this is, very clearly, a one-off incident.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

I say a one-off incident because a number of posters to the thread concerned say they didn’t know that Aconitum napellus was poisonous and some make the frequent confusion between this plant and Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite. If this plant were causing regular poisonings for dogs you would expect people’s knowledge of it to be much greater, especially amongst people who have a particular interest in dogs and their well-being.

The other thing that interests me is the introduction of another incident to indicate just how bad the plant is. One poster cites the ‘quite famous’ death of a flower seller at Marble Arch Tube Station from aconite poisoning. Now, there is plenty of discussion of the validity or otherwise of the statement ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ but, given that the scientific literature contains plenty of papers giving details of a single poisoning incident, I think it is reasonable to assume that the death of a flower-seller would leave a fairly sizeable internet footprint.

But it doesn’t. There’s not a single other mention of this alleged death. Stories, of course, have a tendency to get embellished and localised. A number of times, I’ve read stories of poisoning incidents in some far flung country only to be told, a few days later, that it happened to someone ‘in the next street’, or ‘in our village’, thousands of miles from the actual event.

So, having failed to find any record of a death at Marble Arch, I looked for any reference to flower sellers and monkshood. Now we get onto what looks like more solid ground. A reference to ‘a flower seller in Wiltshire’ suffering heart palpitations actually gives a date, 2003, and source for the story, though not a link. The absence of the link is because the paper cited has no such story. Dig deeper and there are a couple of references to this incident occurring ten years before the claimed date. Those references seem to come from a 1998 book but, again, there seems to be no scientific write-up of what would have been an important incident particularly given our modern concern about safety at work.

I’m not doubting that this poor dog died and I have no reason not to accept that it ate monkshood but I shall be interested to see if, in time, this case gets written up fully because it is, on the face of it, extremely unusual.