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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

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Saturday 31st December 2011 

Back in the summer I was one of the people who criticised a UK government minister for making false statements about Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, on his Facebook pages.

A couple of press reports from the Republic of Ireland show that it is not just UK politicians who don’t understand the laws they are responsible for. The stories concern a councillor in Kerry County who has called for the Irish government to re-instate the money set aside for removing ragwort from highway verges...more

Friday 30th December 2011 

I’ve complained before about the difficulty of getting an overall picture of the use of psychoactive substances because of the tendency to separate the legal ones, alcohol and tobacco, from the illicit drugs though it should be said that, increasingly, reports on illicit drugs include the so-called ‘legal highs’.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a report that does look at all substances together regardless of status but I hadn’t got around to looking at it until I saw a very interesting discussion about it that I’ll return to later...more

Thursday 29th December 2011 

When I first wrote about the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) 2010 Annual Report of the National Poison Data System (NPDS) I noted that of the two deaths attributed to plants one was stated as being due to Allium sativum, garlic.

Since garlic is not something many people would think of as a lethal poison, I’ve been trying to find out more information about the case...more

Wednesday 28th December 2011 

Though I’ve said that I don’t agree with Thomas Hood’s poem ‘November’ that the month is devoid of almost all life I do agree that, the further time moves away from the end of November, the more life seems to be returning to the garden and you realise the time is fast approaching to make decisions about any new plantings or structural changes.

For me, the main decision for this coming year will be whether to have another try at growing Vitex agnus-castus, the chaste tree. Soon after I started this blog, I made the point that my actual gardening skills are very limited and this was ably demonstrated by my experience over the past two years of trying to grow the Vitex agnus castus...more

Tuesday 27th December 2011 

Day 2 of our look at the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) 2010 Annual Report of the National Poison Data System (NPDS). Last Friday, I looked at some of the difficulties in interpreting the data because there is a lot of detailed breakdown on the total numbers and very detailed analysis of the deaths caused by poisoning but it is harder to understand what actual plant types resulted in incidents requiring the intervention of a healthcare facility.

Today, I thought I would try and see if there is a correlation between number of case mentions and the outcomes because, it seems to me, differences might indicate attitudes to the potential risk for harm. I’ve often said that, as far as it is possible to tell, the public perception of the risk from Laburnum in the 1970s meant that children were suspected of being poisoned by it if they were seen close to a tree. I doubt if parents would react the same way to seeing their child close to, say, mother’s make-up bag...more

Monday 26th December 2011 

On 23rd November, I wrote about the phenomenon that I likened to buying a red Nissan Micra. That is, you notice references to things in which you have an interest so they seem to occur more often.

Just occasionally, however, things do occur uncharacteristically often and it happened, today, on BBC Radio 4. Two very different programmes contained items about Amanita muscaria, fly agaric, and the stories associated with it...more

Sunday 25th December 2011 

If I’m honest, I must admit that I have been hoping to find a subject for today’s blog that has no relevance to the date and, by chance, it dropped into my lap courtesy of Twitter.

The schedule of parliamentary business for 11th January 2012 shows an adjournment debate on government policy on the drug khat with the name of Mark Lancaster MP against it. I’ve been trying to second guess what that is going to be about...more

Saturday 24th December 2011 

Reports in the press that one of the UK’s leading visitor attraction had been selling ‘ethnic’ jewellery made of highly toxic seeds raised two questions; how on earth did these products get onto the gift shop shelves and are these seeds as dangerous as the press reports state?

News that the Eden Project had withdrawn from sale bracelets made of highly toxic plant seeds first came from BBC Cornwall and was then carried by other outlets including the Telegraph and the Daily Mail...more

Friday 23rd December 2011 

The American Association of Poison Control Centers has published the 2010 Annual Report of the National Poison Data System (NPDS). It ought to be fairly obvious that a report published on 21st December dealing with the previous year must have taken a lot of work to compile so it’s no surprise to find that the NPDS 2010 report runs to 203 pages.

There is such a lot of information in the report that I may get several days’ blog entries out of it. Certainly, all I intend to do today is look at some of the broader issues that leap out on a first pass...more

Thursday 22nd December 2011 

According to the Home Office website, heroin is a Class A controlled substance under The Misuse of Drugs Act and, the site says, this means ‘that it is an offence to:

possess a controlled substance unlawfully
possess a controlled substance with intent to supply it
supply or offer to supply a controlled drug (even if it is given away for free)’

And, yet, a story has been quite widely circulated about someone being supplied with heroin for free and no action being taken against the supplier...more

Wednesday 21st December 2011 

Someone told me they’d heard that rhubarb leaves, from Rheum x hybridum, had hundreds of years ago been used as a murder weapon and asked me if I could find out if it was true.

The story they were told was that rhubarb leaves were soaked in water to extract the oxalic acid and the resulting liquid was poured into drinking goblets where it dissolved the silver and produced a poison that was deadly for whoever drank from the goblet...more

Tuesday 20th December 2011 

Ventriloquists, mutant rabbits, murdered schoolteachers and substance abuse. No, not the four objects featured in the most surreal ‘Only Connect’ question ever though the first three do lead, for me, to the fourth.

Let’s begin with ventriloquists. Someone pointed me to clip of an entertainer they thought was the world’s best ventriloquist. I didn’t agree, though that’s not relevant, but it did remind me of seeing Nina Conti and Grandma on an episode of ‘QI’. Nina Conti talked about being mentored by the late Ken Campbell who had made a study of the history of ventriloquism and was fascinated by the way it fell from favour in the UK but was widely accepted in the USA...more

Monday 19th December 2011 

After yesterday’s quotation opening I went looking for something suited to today and found it in Othello;

‘O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! that we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!’

I’ve been wondering how to write about the nearly 200 deaths in West Bengal in India following the sale of poisonous alcohol in the region. There are a number of issues raised by this tragedy and, at this point, I’m not sure whether to try and briefly cover all of them or focus on some specific facet...more

Sunday 18th December 2011 

I decided to go looking for a quotation about joy to begin today’s entry and the one closest to how I feel comes from Mark Twain; ‘Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with’.

So, what is this joy that I want to get the full value of by dividing it? It is actually, a double joy. I came across a number of new papers about ricin, from Ricinus communis, that, overall, tell the truth about it and, joy becomes double joy, they are in an open access publication so the full details are freely available to anyone interested enough...more

Saturday 17th December 2011 

In the northern hemisphere, this seems like an unusual time of year to find a newspaper article about Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, but a local paper in British Columbia, Canada, had an item that sent me frantically searching to see if one of its claims could be substantiated.

The article, in Pique Newsmagazine, is about efforts to encourage people to donate to the Community Foundation of Whistler a body that is making grants to the Sea to Sky Invasive Species Council (SSISC) to assist it in dealing with 65 invasive species in the area...more

Friday 16th December 2011 

I thought I’d have another look at the situation regarding the harm caused by alcohol. Earlier this week, I wrote about the latest figures showing there were 1,173,386 alcohol-related hospital admissions in England in 2010/11.

I said, then, ‘[i]t is interesting to speculate how many people would have ended up in hospital if they had all used presently illegal substances rather than alcohol to alter their state of consciousness’ and, after looking at figures for drug use in England published in November, I hoped to engage in a bit of that speculation. As will see, however, that proved to be impossible...more

Thursday 15th December 2011 

The one thing you can say about our species is that we are meticulous about the way we approach doing ourselves considerable harm. I thought I’d return to the archives of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions following previous visits on 27th October, 30th October, 5th November and 15th November.

I found two pieces about the production of tobacco that reminded me of what a former tobacco farmer from Rhodesia had told me about growing Nicotiana tabacum for sale...more

Wednesday 14th December 2011 

I could claim to be an old romantic and say that the impending year end has made me reflective but the reality is that I was being entirely practical when I decided to look at the oldest of my photographs to see if they were worth keeping or whether it made sense to free space on my computer.

I suppose the fact that I decided to select a few of them for this blog entry shows that I should not destroy them completely...more

Tuesday 13th December 2011 

A very moving story from the New York Times reminded me of some of the people I’ve met who found Cannabis sativa useful for treating their medical conditions.

I strongly recommend you read the story for yourself because I think you’ll find it very sad so I won’t do more than give the briefest of précis here..more

Monday 12th December 2011 

With less than two weeks to go until Christmas Day, the party season is getting into full swing so I thought it would be a good time to look at four recent stories related to alcohol.

The first two are reports based on the release of the latest figures for hospital admissions in England. This story was widely covered but I decided to see if I could find any difference in the way the story was handled by looking at how it was dealt with by the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian...more

Sunday 11th December 2011 

I’ve mentioned before, that I don’t mark anniversaries of any sort and, on that occasion, I said that I only become aware of annual events, like Christmas, because the media goes on about them so much. That blog entry was inspired by the media coverage of the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan.

Today, I want to write about an anniversary that has received little or no attention in the media, certainly as far as the UK is concerned, but deserves to be on the front page of every newspaper in the world and lead item on every TV news broadcast...more

Saturday 10th December 2011 

On 18th November I wrote about the lies and distortions used by a whole variety of official bodies to attempt to support prohibition. One of the examples I gave was the contradictory figures on cocaine production and seizure with the US State Department claiming to have seized more cocaine that the UNODC estimated had been produced.

Three new documents have brought me back to this subject. The first was a press release from Narcoleaks   in the form of an open letter to President Obama asking five questions about the inconsistencies in the figures for cocaine production and consumption. The second, from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a ‘component of the Executive Office of the President’ seeks to demonstrate the ‘systematic flaws’ in the Narcoleaks analysis of the relation between seizures and production estimates and the third, from Narcoleaks debunking the ONDCP’s efforts to discredit it...more

Friday 9th December 2011 

Last Saturday, I berated the Daily Mail for printing a story about ricin, the poison derived from Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, that, by my reckoning, contained four lies. I said at the time that the use of an American spelling suggested that the Mail had lifted a paragraph from a press release but I couldn’t confirm that as I hadn’t seen the press release.

Today, I did find the press release from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) and it seems I was wrong to say the Daily Mail lifted one paragraph from the press release; it paraphrased huge chunks of the release without making any critical assessment of what it said...more

Thursday 8th December 2011 

To nowhere. I love diary entries that start like that. They seem to be crediting the reader with intelligence. The sentence should be ‘Today, I went to somewhere’ but it’s a diary so, obviously, it is about today unless otherwise stated and the default subject is the diarist. That makes ‘to somewhere’ perfectly clear.

I had expected to begin this blog entry with ‘To Glasgow’ but, with the metrological office issuing a red warning for storm force winds and heavy rains and everyone saying that travel disruption is a certainty, I decided I couldn’t take the chance. As forecast the weather has worsened through the day so I would, probably, have got to Glasgow and then, almost certainly, not been able to get back because of disruption to rail services...more

Wednesday 7th December 2011 

I’m aware that websites are available all around the world so, if you’re reading this in the USA, you might be surprised to learn that I’ve only just become aware of the ‘Fast and Furious’ story. But, it does seem to be one of those stories that started fairly small and only slowly are its full details and the awful consequences becoming available.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (known at the ATF rather than the BATFE) says that it is ‘A unique law enforcement agency in the United States Department of Justice that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products’...more

Tuesday 6th December 2011 

I used to have a business associate who came from a comparatively wealthy background. Certainly compared to me it was a very wealthy background. Chatting idly, waiting for a ‘plane, one day, we talked about what, when we were very young children, triggered the realisation that Christmas was getting close. For her, it was that the butcher delivered more meat.

These days, for me, a sure sign that the Christmas season has started is the sudden rush of articles, in print and online, about poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima. These articles fall into one of two camps; they are state that poinsettia is a deadly poison and children have been killed after eating just a couple of leaves or they state, with equal insistence, that poinsettia is not poisonous...more

Monday 5th December 2011 

According to the TV news, this morning, it has been a bumper year for mistletoe, Viscum album. It has certainly been an unusual year for weather but I don’t know if it has, genuinely, favoured the growth of this parasitic plant or just created an opportunity for the biggest grower in the UK to get some helpful PR in the week in which its 2011 crop is being auctioned.

For a commercial producer, a bumper crop can be a disadvantage unless you can create enough demand to support the price. It’s good to see the BBC doing its bit to help even just a very small part of the British economy...more

Sunday 4th December 2011 

After a couple of days of fairly serious stuff I thought I’d scout around for something a little more light-hearted. Instead, I found myself looking into self-harming by poisoning.

It began with someone quoting Frohne & Pfander’s ‘A Colour Atlas of Poisonous Plants’ as a source for the number of deaths caused by plants in the Datura genus in India. Since I have that book I went to look up the information given and found that Frohne & Pfander are only, themselves, quoting a figure from another source..more

Saturday 3rd December 2011 

I’m beginning to think I should have a weekly post about the rubbish printed about ricin because it just keeps appearing and I feel it is important to keep challenging it. It would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that people believe it and, it seems possible, a young man is about to spend time in jail because even he believes it and no-one was around to give him better advice.

I’ll come back to Asim Kausar later, but I’ll start with a short update on the four men arrested in Georgia for supposedly planning to launch terror attacks by throwing ricin out of the window of a car. So far, what’s been reported has been brief details of bail hearings but they contain enough information to suggest that, if an American TV company wanted to remake the British sitcom ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ about daft out men living out their retirement doing silly things and fantasising about how it could be, these four sad, though undoubtedly unpleasant, men would be the ideal characters...more

Friday 2nd December 2011 

The UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) has announced that it intends, in 2012, to ‘examine the effectiveness of the Government’s 2010 drugs strategy and the UK Government’s contribution to global efforts to reduce the supply and demand of illicit drugs’.

The HASC is the committee that undertook an investigation into the cocaine trade and produced a report, early in 2010, that many felt had been written in the knowledge that there would be an election in the first half of 2010 and, as a result, contained nothing too contentious for fear of inviting the ire of the right wing media...more

Thursday 1st December 2011 

Someone kindly emailed to tell me about her experiences with Ruta graveolens, rue. As my correspondent found out, the wrong combination of circumstances can make rue a really unpleasant plant.

It is in the same category as Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, that is it produces furocoumarins that can cause burns on the skin. There are ways of looking at Ruta graveolens that make it more of a problem than giant hogweed. This is the result of its unpredictability...more


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Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
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Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
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November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

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Wednesday 24th September 2014
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Tuesday 26th August 2014
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Monday 31st March 2014
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