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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 3rd April 2014

A small puzzle. What caused the skin blistering on an estimated 30 Royal Marines following an exercise on an Albanian island?

I’m afraid the story starts with a Mail Online piece so there needs to be a bit of de-sensationalising to get to an idea of what happened. The headline says the men became ‘violently ill’ with the sub-heads saying they ‘needed urgent medical attention’ and were ‘in agony’. Those same comments appear in the first three paragraphs.

I started by trying to establish how credible the ’30 Royal Marines poisoned’ claim was by finding out what proportion of the total force that would be. I couldn’t find any information on the size of 42 Commando, the troops involved, but I did find another report of the incident from the Plymouth Herald with a rather more restrained headline saying ‘20 Plymouth Royal Marines suffer skin blistering after training at Soviet chemical weapons base’ That same report stated that 200 troops were involved in the exercise so 20 to 30 sounds credible.

Let’s dispense with any thoughts of ‘violent’ illness and ‘agony’. The ‘urgent medical attention’ might suggest that symptoms developed quickly but the Plymouth Herald report says that it took about 24 hours for small lumps to come up on the skin. There is reference to ‘puss’ but, of course, that could be the result of scratching and getting an infection rather than the primary source of the skin irritation.

Because the exercise took place on an island that is home to a former Soviet base, the Mail asks if mustard gas might be responsible. The Ministry of Defence, however, is reported to have said it was giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). That’s not an official quote from the MoD. It’s ‘a military source’ saying ‘We were later told about this giant hogweed’.

Actually, there are no official comments until the very end of the articles when the MoD is quoted saying it was aware of ‘short-term illness’ suffered by ‘a number of personnel’. Everything else is from ‘a source’ or a ‘marine’. The reliability of such statements has to be doubted especially when ‘Another marine’ is quoted saying “We had all been covered up. There was no skin showing, we all wore gloves and were covered.” I’ll talk more about what the available images show later but, for now, I’ll just note that every picture shows troops with bare hands and, given that it is reported that some of the men had been on the island for a few weeks, the idea of being completely covered all the time is clearly wrong.

So, was it giant hogweed that caused these problems? There are three points that suggest that is unlikely. First, giant hogweed is a plant of the north. I haven’t heard of it being found in the Mediterranean or Adriatic. Second, the exercise was in September. In the UK, giant hogweed has set its seed by late July and completely dried up by early September as these pictures show.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

Seeds already formed on giant hogweed. Picture taken 24th July 2009

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

Plant completely dried up. Picture taken 3rd September 2012

In a warmer climate, if it grows at all, it would be finished even earlier. And, third, there is no indication of long-term harm. It’s true we haven’t had a lot of sunny weather since then but absence of any repeat burning or permanent discoloration of the skin doesn’t help giant hogweed’s case.

But it is the pictures that are of interest. There are plenty to choose from. There are about 30 on this Pinterest page and more on the Military Photos site None of these show any plants that can be giant hogweed. The Plymouth Herald story I linked to above has a photo gallery and the sixth (and last) image shows three soldiers beside a derelict building. In front of them is an out of focus plant so a full identification isn’t possible but I think there’s a pretty high likelihood that it comes from the Euphorbia genus.

All Euphorbias contain an irritant latex that can result in skin irritation much more like the ‘little lumps’ described.

Though there is no way to be sure, I’d say Euphorbia is a more credible candidate than giant hogweed. It may be that the plant in this picture that has some slight resemblance to giant hogweed led to what I’m sure is a misattribution of the blame for this minor incident that wouldn’t have made it to the media at all unless there was the most tenuous of links to World War I chemical weapons.

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