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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 11th March 2015

I'm always interested to hear of individual incidents involving poisonous plants. (I changed 'delighted' to 'interested' because I didn't want to sound pleased that someone had suffered harm.) Most of the time, the accounts I'm sent are very brief so I was delighted to be contacted by someone who kept careful, contemporaneous notes of the experience.

I thought I would post the account in full. My correspondent wished to remain anonymous so I have made a few small edits to reduce the chance of anyone identifying the case.

1st person report of ingestion of small quantity of raw Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort, leaf.

Subject, middle-aged average weight.

Plant details: 
Early spring growth (February) on established root-stock (~10 exposed parsnip-like roots exposed in fast-flowing stream). Plant ~30cm tall only.

Quantity ingested: 
3 terminal leaflets chewed for about 20 seconds and tasted at 14:35. Minimal amount of saliva and plant matter swallowed––majority spat out because plant identification not certain. Estimate less than one fresh leaflet ingested (perhaps toxin absorbed through oral mucosa?).

Mild neutral celery / parsley / salad leaves taste. Pleasant and not bitter. Not tough or fibrous. No unpleasant aftertaste.

Symptoms / Signs:
No symptoms at all until 17:30 (+3 hours post-ingestion) when mild lightheadedness, anxiety and loss of concentration / sense of detachment. Loss of appetite. Tachycardia ~100BPM at rest. Palpitations; very aware of own pulse but apparently no irregular rhythm. Over subsequent ~12 hours very mild epigastric abdominal pain developed but no nausea or diarrhoea. Respiratory rate remained 10-12 per min. but Tachycardia remained throughout these ~12 hours. Disturbed sleep through feeling of mild anxiety and loss of concentration but able to rationalise, read and process information. Paper note (detailing plant ID, amount ingested and time of ingestion) written and retained on person but no advice sought.  
No seizures, pins and needles or muscle twitching.
Urine output fine and urine clear.

+17 hours post-ingestion: (morning of following day) feeling better. Pulse now ~75BPM & regular. Anxiety subsided. Mild right-sided headache and mild epigastric pain.

+30 hours post-ingestion: Became very dizzy and experienced mild tremors in hands while sitting at computer. Feeling of heat over scalp and pre-syncopal (pre-ictal?) aura. These symptoms eased by walking outside in cold air and drinking 300mls of cold water in sips. Discomforting dizziness/aura lessened by lying down with minimal visual stimulation (no auditory or visual hallucinations experienced).

+32 hours post-ingestion: mild headache only.

+40 hours post-ingestion: Further episode of feeling of heat/pressure on scalp and dizziness with mild headache.

+48 hours. No noticeable symptoms. Pulse back to normal ~60BPM at rest.

Conclusion: Difficult to wholly disentangle physical symptoms and subjective additive effect of emotional anxiety. However, the two episodes of scalp 'heat', dizziness and hand tremors were sufficiently unusual and concerning that I was close to seeking medical advice. During these two brief episodes I felt close to fainting and it would have been fascinating to have a record of vital signs at these times.

What particularly struck me about this is that a very small amount was able to cause these problems, yet, hemlock water dropwort is not one of the 'fashionable' poisonous plants that make it into those 'Top 10 Most..' lists. Even Agatha Christie never used it as a murder weapon.


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