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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday, 8th November 2014

I’m been waiting to see if something happened that I didn’t feel could be successfully dealt with just by tweeting about it and, on Thursday, it happened but it took until today for me to decide I should write up the whole story, or rather the story so far because, as will become clear, it is not close to be complete.

It started when my Google alert for ‘poisonous plant’ took me to a story on Mail Online about a pre-inquest hearing into the death of a gardener. You can read the full story but, in summary, the distraught father of a 33-year old gardener believed his son died after having contact with Aconitum napellus, monkshood, and a histopathologist had told a pre-inquest hearing that he thought it was ‘'more likely than not' that Mr Greenaway died after coming into contact with the deadly purple flowering plant.’

Let’s deal with the story first before getting to why it has got me back to blogging.

There are several important points to note. The first is that this was a pre-inquest hearing at which only the father’s view of what happened had been presented. The full inquest, when it happens, will hear all of the evidence in detail and will take due note of all of it rather than, as the Mail and other media have done, over-emphasise the histopathologist’s assertion.

The second point is that this poor unfortunate man took several days to die. Aconite and aconitine, the main alkaloids, are known to be quick-acting with death, if it happens, coming within hours.

And, finally, for now, the idea that simply brushing against a plant would be enough to get a lethal dose goes against everything that is known about the plant. I’ve spoken to people who’ve eaten a few leaves and survived and I haven’t spoken to the millions of people who have monkshood in their gardens and handle it every year without coming to any harm.

So, it is too early to know what it was that brought about this death and, if it turns out to be as reported, that would cause a complete rethink of what we know about poisonous plants.

I’ll set up a Google alert for ‘Nathan Greenaway’, the deceased, to make sure I don’t miss the full inquest because it may not receive such widespread coverage if it turns out that something else caused his death.

From here to the end, this piece is all about me.

When I looked at the Mail story I noticed it had a video about Aconitum napellus and I thought the still image looked familiar. Clicking play, I heard my own voice and realised this was a shortened version of one of my YouTube videos. Now I’m not a copyright lawyer. I know that by allowing my video to be shared, when I uploaded it to YouTube, it was OK for anyone to place the whole thing on their own site. What I’m not sure is whether it is OK to edit someone else’s work.
Here’s the whole video if you’re interested. I assume that, at 4 minute 38 seconds, Mail Online assumed it was beyond the attention span of its readers.

Here's the full video if you're interested.

I then found an email from someone at the Mail asking for permission to do whatever they wanted with my video. I told them that they had the permission that was available to them as a result of my agreeing to share the video by YouTube.

I suggested that they might want to replace their edit of my work with my own short version of the story of the plant from my ‘Poisonous Plants 1-2-1’ series but they haven’t done that.

Here's that video if you have 121 seconds to spare.

I tweeted about this but I don’t know if it was that or Google that brought me to the attention of a BBC News website journalist who had been given the job of writing a background piece about monkshood. After the piece appeared I tweeted saying how excellent it was. Though I was being ironic because I meant it was excellent because I was quoted extensively in it, it is actually a pretty good and balanced summary of the plant’s story.

Right, I thought, that’s my moment of fame for this month. But then someone from ‘BBC Breakfast’ got in touch to say they wanted me to appear at 0720 this morning on the sofa in Salford and could I be on a train within 90 minutes. We talked about what I would have to say about the plant and what I wasn’t prepared to say about Nathan Greenaway and she said she’d ring back with a reference number for collecting the train tickets.

When she rang back, however, it was because she’d thought about our conversation and realised I wasn’t going to put out a ‘We’re all going to die’ message. She asked me if I was saying Greenaway didn’t die from brushing against Aconitum napellus and I pointed out that this just a pre-inquest hearing and that, if the inquest verdict was that this was how he died I would be extremely surprised. (I was tempted to quote the part of Tim Minchin’s ‘Storm where he describes how he would react if someone proved that homeopathy worked, but I didn’t.)

[Here's the video and if you haven't heard all of it you should. But, if you don't have time then just go to 5 minutes 55 seconds for the piece I mean.

Back to the story.]

I said I thought it would be better to wait for the inquest verdict and she went off to speak to her editor. She rang back shortly after to say they had decided to drop the item and might return to it after the full inquest.

Nice as it would have been to appear on national TV, I’m pleased that it didn’t happen. I watched the programme this morning and they did not mention this story at all. I think that is a good thing.

Meanwhile, my website started to get busy on Thursday, had thousands of extra visitors, yesterday, and when I saw that the traffic levels are still high this morning I thought I’d write this blog for those who want to know more about this particular incident.

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