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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

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Wednesday 30th November 2011

I realise that ‘The labourer is worthy of his reward’, to quote 1 Timothy Chapter 5 verse 18 of the King James bible, but I’m not sure that determining the size of that reward is straightforward, especially when you have to take into account all the other people who take a share of it.

I’ve been having a further look at some of the references cited by the 1999 French paper I mentioned on Monday 28th. And that has brought me up against some pretty high paywalls...more

Tuesday 29th November 2011

I had a brief period of elation and excitement this morning but it didn’t last. Over breakfast, I saw a news report saying that the British Library had scanned over 4 million newspaper pages from the 18th and 19th centuries and made them available online.

Sadly, once I came through to the study and went online to see how the service operated I found that you can search the archive for free but have to pay a subscription to actually see the scanned pages...more

Monday 28th November 2011

I shall have to rethink parts of one of my talks after stumbling across a paper suggesting that a couple of things I’ve been including in my ‘Medical Murderers’ presentation are not as clear cut as I thought.

The stumbling started when I happened upon a 1999 paper by two French toxicologists who reviewed cases of human poisoning due to plant extracts before looking at a new method of determining the concentration of plant poisons post mortem...more

Sunday 27th November 2011

My book, ‘Is That Cat Dead?’, is based on looking at the questions many people have about poisonous plants. If you will, these are the FAQs of poisoning. There are, though, a number of OAQs (Occasionally Asked Questions) and one of those came to mind after reading a story from a magazine called ‘Outlook India’.

This particular OAQ was based on a belief that nicotine is used as the poison in executions by lethal injection in the USA. I haven’t been able to trace how that came about but, I suppose, it could be that someone said that nicotine, from the Nicotiana genus, tobacco, is a more potent killer than the chemicals used in lethal injections and that went from the suggestion that nicotine could be used to the idea that it is used...more

Saturday 26th November 2011

My Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, is starting to come through.

If you read about gardening in any form, whether in magazines or online forums, you’ll know that there has been a lot of interest in some unusual, or rather, untimely events and what they may mean both short and long term...more

Friday 25th November 2011

Prof Arthur Grollman has been kind enough to send me a copy of the published paper following on from his presentation to the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in June. The paper, which is already available online, will appear in a future edition of ‘Kidney International’, the official journal of the International Society of Nephrology. The full paper, entitled ‘Aristolactam-DNA adducts are a biomarker of environmental exposure to aristolochic acid’, is restricted to members and subscribers but you can see the abstract.

The significance of this new paper from Grollman and his associates is that the final sentence of the abstract states, ‘Thus, in genetically susceptible individuals, dietary exposure to aristolochic acid is causally related to endemic nephropathy and carcinomas of the upper urinary tract’. Aristolochic acid (AA) is a component of plants in the Aristolochia genus, such as Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort...more

Thursday 24th November 2011

The use of pepper spray to deal with protesters at the University of California (UC) Davis campus has had extensive coverage in the media, not least because a TV crew was on hand to get clear footage of the incident and its aftermath, and demonstrated how easy it is to get in trouble for telling the truth.

The students, who were protesting to indicate their support for the various ‘Occupy’ movements around the USA and elsewhere in the world, had sat down across a campus thoroughfare and refused to move when ordered to by campus police. One officer then walked slowly along in front of them spraying the pepper into their faces. If you haven’t already seen it here's the video together with the first hand reporting of the incident...more

Wednesday 23rd November 2011

I make a conscious effort not to let this blog become solely about psychoactive substances. There are other aspects of poisoning that I feel I should be dealing with though, especially at this time of year, it may be harder to find interesting subjects in the non-intoxicating plants.

It would, however, be very easy to write about drugs every day because I find plenty of items to read and many of them are worthy of comment. I don’t know if there really is more going on in this area than before or I’ve just bought a red Nissan Micra...more

Tuesday 22nd November 2011

A regular theme of this blog is the way the media fails to scrutinise stories and, as a result, publishes things that don’t make sense. Obviously, ricin, from Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, is the best example of this but it happens with Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, and things like the annual summer panics about Datura stramonium, jimsonweed.

And, of course, it happens all the time with stories about substance use but, in that instance, you often feel the particular media outlet is checking that what it publishes conforms to its agenda on the issue...more 

Monday 21st November 2011

Our walk today took us along part of the John Muir Trail form West Barns into Dunbar and back. Though the sky looked threatening, in part, and we could see a rainbow as we parked the cars, it turned into a very fine, clear day with some splendid views up and down the coast and out to sea.

Numerous plants along the shore were still in flower confirming what I blogged about on Saturday 19th. For a good part of the total you are walking right on the edge of Dunbar Golf Club and I found the contrast between carefully maintained grassland and the scrub on the edge of the beach quite striking...more

Sunday 20th November 2011

The 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko is back in the news as a London coroner, Alex Reid, is conducting pre-inquest hearings to determine how the inquest, due to take place in 2012, will be conducted.

Though the murder weapon was determined to be polonium-210, a radioactive isotope, and not anything related to plants, I find the case of interest because of the theme that underlies my talk about ‘Medical Murderers’...more

Saturday 19th November 2011

It’s hard to believe that, this time last year, we were less than a week away from the first snowstorm of what was to be a spell of bad weather lasting into January 2011. Although I can’t remember the exact weather conditions on 19th November 2010, I do know that the weather forecasters were already beginning to talk about snow.

This 19th November, the weather has been warm and dry with no wind continuing the pattern that seems to have run all through the month. If you’re familiar with Thomas Hood’s poem ‘November’ you’ll know that the last two lines are ‘No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, November!’ I don’t know if that is ever wholly true but it is very wrong this year...more

Friday 18th November 2011

This is the second part of a two part post about the lies and distortions used by a whole variety of official bodies to attempt to support prohibition. You don’t have to read the first part, first, but you’ll find it here.

I set out to cover this topic in a single post but found I could not control my anger sufficiently to keep myself within that constraint. Yesterday was mostly about bodies who claim to rely on science and then use the most unscientific methods to try and dupe readers into believing the ‘official’ line. Today is about how drug seizures are used for political propaganda...more

Thursday 17th November 2011

I frequently say that lying about drugs is counter-productive if your lies are not the only source of information. What I usually have in mind by this is the way a lot of drug education aimed at schoolchildren runs counter to both the experience of those who have already used drugs and those of their peers who tell them that the official information is nonsense.

But there is another area where lies are frequently employed and that is with official statistics about drugs. I’ve chosen to use the word ‘lies’ because, in my book, knowingly presenting misleading information in order to elicit a particular response is lying...more

Wednesday 16th November 2011

I could never be a politician. I’m not saying I don’t have the intelligence though that is true and I’m not thinking about how my views on different things run right across the political spectrum so I could never ally myself with any one party. No, my failing is that I like to explain things.

In case this gets read by my friend, the ex-teacher, who I have been trying to get comfortable with computing for several years and who frequently tells me I could never have been a teacher, I should say that I’m not nearly as good at explaining things as I would like to be. But I do try...more

Tuesday 15th November 2011

Sometimes I can find that I am very far behind some aspect of popular culture. It’s just happened to me with Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian and accomplished musician and songwriter. I’d heard of him but it’s only recently that I took a wander through the leafy glades of YouTube and saw a number of his performances.

The one that struck me most was what he describes as a nine minute beat poem called ‘Storm’. Storm is a hippyish young woman who espouses all sorts of alternative lifestyles including using alternative, natural remedies. Minchin gives himself the wonderful line ‘Do you know what they call alternative medicine that has been proved to work? – Medicine’ and then goes on to point out that aspirin fits into that category...more

Monday 14th November 2011

From time to time, a web page will appear giving a one page take on the subject of poisonous plants in the garden. Many times these are in the form of a list. There are quite a number of websites devoted to ‘Top 10s’ of all sorts. There may even be a website giving a top 10 of ‘Top 10’ websites. At the risk of sounding as though I am sneering, I have to say that many such lists are flawed, often using the wrong photograph to identify a plant or repeating erroneous opinions about the nature of a particular plant.

At other times, what appears is the online version of a newspaper article where the paper’s gardening correspondent has decided to ‘do’ poisonous plants for this week’s column. These tend to be based on a much greater general gardening knowledge but can still contain some odd views...more

Sunday 13th November 2011

I’ve been reading a paper, from 2008, written by a trio of evolutionary biologists from America, Canada and Germany. I’ve written before 29th Oct that I’m not always happy with the way people describe the process of evolution when referring to the properties plants currently have.

It seems to me that evolutionary biologists are keen to explain absolutely every interaction between different species in terms of evolution but I don’t believe that to be the case. I’ll just repeat that I don’t for a moment doubt that evolution exists and works. I just don’t think there is an evolutionary explanation for everything..more

Saturday 12th November 2011

I can remember parts of a TV drama I watched something like thirty to forty years ago. It was in the days when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had a reputation for well-acted, thought-provoking television albeit made on a very low budget with often only one set. The premise of this play was that four men decided to pick someone bad and kill them to make the world a better place. But, after further thought, they decided to kill someone good on the grounds that ten people might step in to continue his good works and, therefore, the world would derive a big net benefit.

I don’t remember the outcome of the drama and, obviously, its key premise, how important is one life, has been dealt with before and since. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ would be the film most people think of first. But, this question of the effect of one life cut short came to mind when I read of the death of the Interior Minister in the Government of Mexico, Francisco Blake Mora, in a helicopter crash...more

Friday 11th November 2011

War and remembrance
Given the date, I thought I would have a brief look at the way some of the plants featured on this website have some connection to soldiers and war. In each case, there’s a link to the full plant page if you want to read more about the plant concerned.

With one or two exceptions there is an element of following a timeline from ancient history to the present day but it is not, by any means, a perfect trail...more

Thursday 10th November 2011

My talk yesterday evening was to a garden group from a small nearby village. I nearly wrote a small village garden group but I thought you might conclude the group was small rather than the village. In fact, considering how small the village is the garden group is thriving and there were quite a few more people there tonight that when I spoke to them at this time last year.

Sometimes, the smaller audiences are better because everybody knows everybody and that seems to make them less shy about sharing their own experiences. I thought I’d write about some of the stories I picked up...more

Wednesday 9th November 2011

I listened to an item on the radio about a local authority insisting that all taxis in its area are fitted with CCTV cameras that must be functioning 24 hours a day every day. Some owner drivers are unhappy that they will be recorded even if they are using the vehicle privately, to go to the shops or the cinema with their family. This sort of discussion usually produces statistics about how many CCTV cameras there are in the UK and how it ‘is just like 1984’.

That set me thinking about one aspect of modern live that is not like 1984 and, just possibly, that is a shame. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll know that part of the way society is run is that history is constantly rewritten to suit current thinking. I’m tending to think that such revision is not universally a bad thing...more

Tuesday 8th November 2011

If you read, and believe, the right-wing press in the UK, you would think that British judges apply the law to suit their view of the world and that view puts the criminal above the victim and society, in general. If you read the right-wing press carefully and also read other more objective sources, you find that UK judges apply the law as laid down by parliament and, if the results are not what is desired, it is for parliament to make different laws not for judges to interpret the law and base decisions on what the judge thinks parliament intended.

To an outsider, the American judicial system seems to operate in a completely different way. Because the constitution is paramount in the USA, judges can decide that a law passed by politicians reflecting today’s issues can be overturned if the judge believes that it infringes the constitution. That appears to give a judge a great deal of power to decide issues based on his underlying prejudice about how the constitution should order society...more

Monday 7th November 2011

A couple of weeks ago, the USA Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced that it now considered Peru to be the largest producer of cocaine rather than Colombia. The DEA still believes that Colombia has the largest area of Erythroxylum coca under cultivation but differences in yield mean that Peru has the higher outturn of processed cocaine.

Or, possibly, not because a closer examination of the report the DEA  presented to the US Senate Caucus on International Drug Control on 19th October read together with the UNODC World Drugs Report for 2011 makes it hard to reach the conclusion that Peru is now No.1 for cocaine production...more

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...more

Saturday 5th November 2011

Time for another dip into the archives of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. 30th October On the last visit, I wrote about Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort, but forgot to discuss one aspect of the stories of that plant. I’ll correct that today.

Not that hemlock is the subject for this item. Instead it is an evergreen shrub that many people have in the garden without ever considering that it is poisonous. Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel, is in the same genus as plums, cherries, peaches and other well-known fruits so discovering it can kill may be surprise...more

Friday 4th November 2011

Sometimes, Google Alerts are as useful for what they don’t tell you as what they do. My alerts are all daily and that means that Google sends me an email listing all the web pages added to its index in the previous 24 hours containing the keyword(s) concerned.

No email means no new pages indexed and that can be very helpful in determining what topics aren’t ‘hot’ at the moment. Usually, alerts have just one or two links though up to ten is not completely unusual. Yesterday, one of my alerts contained 45 links to new pages mentioning the keyword. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you won’t be surprised to hear that the keyword is ‘ricin’..more

Thursday 3rd November 2011

I caught up with a radio programme about fungi that was broadcast a few days ago and there were a couple of things that I thought were worth noting.

The programme itself was a bit like a trip back to the past of radio. You may have heard extracts from science programming in the ‘50s where the idea is to give the impression of a conversation but the novelty of the medium to the participants makes the delivery stilted so that it is quite clear that a written script is being followed...more

Wednesday 2nd November 2011

Alcohol is the second biggest killer in the world of plant poisoning. I thought I’d start with that reminder because it should focus the attention on the need to do something about that, even if it means abandoning long-held views.

I don’t like Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP). I did consider expressing that as ‘I don’t have a lot of goodwill towards’ or other weasel words but the truth is I don’t like him or his party and, in part, that is because it is pretty obvious they don’t like me...more

Tuesday 1st November 2011

I wrote, yesterday, about the obsession with the possibility that Halloween ‘treats’ may be poisoned when the greater dangers of Halloween lie in other areas like choking on small toys or being knocked down on the road.

Now, today, comes another story that you would have thought should be more in the public consciousness because it involves actual deaths in young children. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) believes that at least 18 children have died, in the UK since 1999, as a result of accidental strangulation by the cords on window blinds...more