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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 24th May 2012

There’s been quite a lot about chemicals on the Internet, recently. I don’t know where or when it started but I know when it came to my attention. That was when Deborah Blum wrote a piece1 about New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and a column he wrote,2 the latest in a line of writings about how chemicals are bad.

That led me to an interview with the CEO of Dow Chemical3 in which he says that the company is trying to stress the ‘Dow’ even though ‘Chemical’ is still in the name because of the negative images conjured up these days by the word ‘chemical’. At one point in the interview, he says ‘95 percent of all products out there have chemistry in them’. This led to a number of science bloggers speculating about what that other 5% could be made of.

I hope it was just a slip of the brain rather than a comment either made by a stupid man or aimed at a supposed stupid audience. After all, the ubiquity of Dow products makes all of us customers and as Gerald Ratner found out it doesn’t pay to insult your customers.

And then the website ‘Sciencegeist’4 decided to have a ‘toxic carnival’ encouraging people to spend this week writing about their favourite toxic chemical.

I very quickly gave up trying to pick one so I thought I’d just write about the simple fact that what plants produce are chemicals even if the names most often used for them don’t sound like it.

When I was a very small boy, in the days before such a thing might be considered offensive, it was said that all you had to do to be able to speak Italian was to add ‘O’ to the end of the English word.

It seems to me that, in the earliest days of discovering the constituents of plants, all you had to do was add ‘ine’ to the name of the plant. Thus Erythroxylum coca produces cocaine. Conium maculatum, poison hemlock, gives us coniine. Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, contains atropine and Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane, contains a good quantity of hyoscyamine.

These names tend to mask the fact that these substances are chemicals.

Cocaine has the chemical formula C17H21NO4 and is called benzoylmethylecgonine or more completely methyl (1R,2R,3S,5S)-3- (benzoyloxy)-8-methyl-8-azabicyclo[3.2.1] octane-2-carboxylate

Cocaine has the chemical formula C17H21NO4

Coniine is (2S)-2-propylpiperidine with the formula C8H17N

Coniine is (2S)-2-propylpiperidine with the formula C8H17N

Atropine is (RS)-(8-methyl-8-azabicyclo[3.2.1]oct-3-yl) 3-hydroxy-2-phenylpropanoate with the formula C17H23NO3

Atropine has the formula C17H23NO3

Hyoscyamine has the formula C17H23NO3 but is known to its close friends as (8-methyl-8-azabicyclo[3.2.1]oct-3-yl) 3-hydroxy-2-phenylpropanoate

Hyoscyamine has the formula C17H23NO3

I’m sure there are people who can recite these full names by heart but I’ll never be one of them. That’s a shame because it would be quite fun, when faced with one of those people who insist that ‘natural’ remedies are to be preferred over the ‘chemicals’ used by pharmaceutical companies to produce medicines, to say ‘What like using (8-methyl-8-azabicyclo[3.2.1]oct-3-yl) 3-hydroxy-2-phenylpropanoate to treat travel sickness?’


1.Nicholas Kristof and the Bad, Bad Chemical World Deborah Blum Speakeasy Science 9th May 2012
2.How Chemicals Affect Us Nicholas D. Kristof  The New York Times 2nd May 2012
3.CEO of Dow Chemical on re-branding chemistry Interview by Kai Ryssdal Marketplace for Thursday, May 10, 2012
4.Our Favorite Toxic Chemicals Sciencegeist 14th May 2012


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