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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 22nd February 2012

I’ve mentioned, before, that I visit a gardening forum to see if anyone is discussing poisonous plants and to offer my thoughts on them. Previous entries on 8th August, 25th October and 29th January all resulted from this forum.

Today, someone was asking for advice about what to plant in a largish local authority border to give it a ‘tropical’ look. They received a number of ideas including examples of Ricinus and Brugmansia. I was pleasantly surprised to find that no-one chimed in with dire warnings about putting such ‘dangerous’ plants in a public garden.

Brugmansia versicolor

Brugmansia versicolor

I’ve written at considerable length about Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, and how it consistently fails to live up to its reputation as a killer. And I wrote, on 29th December, about Brugmansia suaveolens being one of only two plants to be reported as causing fatal poisoning in the 2010 American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) Annual Report. Today, I thought I’d look at the two plants side by side.

I’ll begin with a look at the actual fatalities caused by each plant. A 1985 report from the Emory University School of Medicine and the Georgia Poison Control Center examined 751 cases of accidental ricin ingestion during the previous 85 years. The researchers found that only 15 of those cases had produced fatal outcomes and then went further and estimated that 6 of those fatalities could have been avoided with modern supportive treatment.

I can’t provide truly comparable figures for Brugmansia plants for two reasons. The first is that there remains a lot of confusion between the two genera Brugmansia and Datura and that results in poisoning cases for each being combined. The data on actual cases is, therefore, for Brugmansia/Datura combined rather than just the Brugmansia genus. The second is that no-one has done an exactly similar study so the information I have is based on my own, flawed, trawl through available case reports.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

I found a total of 267 cases without limiting the time period I was interested in, which might suggest that there are fewer incidents for Brugmansia/Datura than for Ricinus communis. The caveat I would offer before reaching that conclusion is that 188 of that 267 were recorded in a single study that looked at a six year period in Texas. The possibility has to be considered that, in other states of the USA and other parts of the world, similar rates of poisoning occur and have done so for more than the six years studied in Texas.

That would imply that a great many more than 751 cases of Brugmansia/Datura poisoning occurred in the first 85 years of the 20th century making it a more frequent harmful toxin that ricin. It is, of course, impossible to make that claim with any certainty.

What is worth noting, however, is that around 30% of the 267 cases I looked at resulted in fatalities. Even if none of the speculative cases resulted in fatalities, at around 80 deaths, Brugmansia/Datura is, clearly, a more efficient killer than Ricinus communis.

How does Brugmansia/Datura come to be a bigger killer than Ricinus communis given that ricin is, unquestionably, more toxic than the alkaloids present in the other genera? That’s very simple really; ricin has no psychoactive properties. Most of the cases of poisoning from Brugmansia/Datura are the result of deliberate ingestion either of the plants themselves or of teas made from them intended to produce intoxication.

The willingness of some people to expose themselves to potentially fatal toxins in order to alter the functioning of their brains is, to me, of far more interest than ridiculous claims about the danger posed by castor oil beans.