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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 3rd April 2013

Since I started this website, five years ago, I’ve wrestled with a style problem that may, I fear, lead to misunderstanding. Much of the plant information in the A to Z section of this site is concerned with the folklore attached to a plant or the ancient belief in its medicinal properties.

The style issue arises because I decided that, in general, including caveats with every piece of folklore would quickly become tedious for the reader. Thus, on the page for Buxus sempervirens, box, it says ‘Witches use knowledge as power and, hence, can tell you the numbers of every branch, every twig and every leaf of every plant’ without explaining that there is no such thing as a witch.

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

I think it reads better without the reality check and I also think the reader can get a little more absorbed into the stories if they are allowed to suspend rational thought and accept that there are witches and the Devil really does own Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade.

But the problem comes if people assume I am being literal and that some of the things our ancestors believed about plants are not, with the benefit of our greater knowledge, plain silly. Or, even, dangerous.

I’ve been prompted to consider this by reading a piece from India that, in essence, comes down to the ‘hundreds of years’ argument. There are people who cling to ridiculous beliefs about plants, mostly their medicinal uses, based on the notion that they have been used this way for hundreds of years so must be safe and efficacious.

I’ve written a number of times about the kidney damage arising from the aristolochic acid (AA) found in plants like Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort. So many times, in fact, that I suggest you go to the list on the plant page rather than me try and give all the links here. The discoveries about AA are of quite recent date and the true extent of its actions is still being discovered but there can be no doubt that it is a very dangerous substance. But the Ayurvedic Drug Manufactures Association (ADMA) in India, according to this report, wants the Indian Department of Ayush to refute what it describes as ‘misinformation’ about AA. And the basis of that refutation seems to be the ‘hundreds of years’ argument.

Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort

Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort

It refers to the plants mentioned in the ‘ancient literature’ and says ‘since ayurvedic medicines have always been known to be the safest and the most dependable treatment option’.

The ADMA also makes a point about dose levels and it is true that ‘the dose makes the poison’. But in the case of aristolochic acid nephropathy (AAN), it appears that the smallest of doses can, over time, result in kidney failure. The current state of knowledge indicates that there is no such thing as a safe dose of AA. It is this slow progression that undermines the ‘hundreds of years’ argument in this case. For hundreds of years, people died of something else before the regular exposure to AA in tiny amounts could bring on kidney failure.

You would think that people would understand how the acquisition of knowledge works and how it changes our understanding of situations. I’m pretty sure, these days, no-one applies Juniperus communis, common juniper, to the genitals before coition as a contraceptive but that may be because no-one is trying to make money from that remedy and hopes that the ‘hundreds of years’ argument will boost their profits.

Incidentally, a digression, it is important that we don’t ridicule our ancestors for believing what we now know to be false. For the most part, though previous centuries have had their fair share of charlatans, they were doing the best they could with the available data. What seems silly to us was at the cutting edge of knowledge in its day.

It is, though, perfectly acceptable, I would even say essential, to ridicule those who cling to knowledge that has been superseded by later replicated research.

To an extent the appeal of the ‘hundreds of years’ argument comes from the perception that the pharmaceutical industry is a selfish profit driven monster that tries to suppress this traditional knowledge in favour of pushing its products regardless of the harm they may do.

The true situation is, of course, more nuanced than that but I couldn’t help noticing that the ADMA’s main demand is for the government to be ‘protecting and promoting the interest of the ASU industry at large’. There is no mention of concern for patients.

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