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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 20th July 2012

I had a quick look at ‘Mail Watch’ the website dedicated to taking the Daily Mail and Mail Online to task for poor quality reporting. I thought, perhaps, it might run a competition for the most ridiculous piece published by the Mail because I’m pretty sure I’d be the winner if it did.

Yesterday, the Mail Online published an article headlined ‘Should James Bond swap his Martinis for a nice cuppa? Tea acts as antidote for deadly terrorist poison ricin’1

It is a report quoting Professor Les Baillie of Cardiff University saying that a substance found in tea ‘inactivated’ ricin, the toxin found in Ricinus communis, castor oil plant.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

It is so full of nonsense that I’m going to go through it in some detail.

It begins;

‘Scientists believe a simple cup of tea could be a secret weapon to fight terrorism.
‘A chemical in tea can deactivate ricin - a highly-toxic ingredient in deadly terrorist attacks.’

Before looking at ‘a simple cup of tea’, I’ll start by saying, as I’ve said many times before, that ricin never has been, is not now and will never be a weapon used in mass terrorism. There are no ‘deadly terrorist attacks’.

Then there’s the discrepancy between the second and first paragraphs. It is possible that there is a chemical in tea that inactivates ricin. I’ve contacted Prof. Baillie asking for sight of the research work that demonstrates this and I’ll add anything I hear from him later. But that does not mean that there is enough of that chemical in ‘a simple cup of tea’ to inactivate anything.

To have any credibility we need to be told how much of the chemical is required to inactivate how much ricin and what that amounts to in terms of ‘simple’ cups of tea.

Moving on there is a quote from Prof. Baillie;

‘‘Our new findings suggest that if the security services want to counter the threat of ricin, they may find the answer in their morning cup of tea.’’

Absent any contact with Prof Baillie, I have to accept that as a true quote. In that case, it demonstrates that the professor has not looked closely enough at the true nature of ricin. If he had he would know that the security services can counter the threat of ricin with their morning cup of tea because, since there is no ricin threat, sitting in their offices drinking tea is as effective a measure as any other.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

The next paragraph is an interesting mix of fiction and truth;

‘Since the First World War ricin has had a gruesome reputation as a bioweapon. Even a tiny amount can kill a person within two to three days after getting into the bloodstream.’

This ‘gruesome reputation’ is such that work on weaponising it was abandoned during the First World War, it was not considered as a weapon during World War Two, UN inspectors determined that Iraq had looked at its use as a weapon of assassination but had realised it was not usable as a mass weapon and no army has ever been faced with an attack using ricin.

It is, however, true to say that ricin can kill ‘after getting into the bloodstream’ but, this being the Mail, that doesn’t lead to any consideration of the problem of getting ricin into the bloodstream of a mass population. Ingestion doesn’t do it, skin contact doesn’t do it and inhalation of anything other than very finely milled particles administered in high concentration doesn’t do it.

The next paragraph is a piece of classic Mail scare-mongering;

‘And it comes from the humble castor oil bean, a powerful laxative, used medicinally for centuries, that is available in many health food shops and online.’

You don’t find ‘the humble castor oil bean’ on sale in shops. What you find is castor oil obtained by pressing the beans and known to contain no ricin whatsoever. The Mail wants you to believe that your neighbour can wander into your high street’s Holland & Barrett and come out fully equipped to commit mass murder. Why? No, seriously, please, Mr Dacre, tell me why the publication you edit wants to create fear amongst its readership by spreading lies?

Having set up the topic, the piece moves on to a more detailed consideration of the ‘science’. It introduces the chemical of interest, Epigallocatechin gallate, and then says that the research found;

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

‘It inactivated ricin - a highly-toxic substance used in scores of attempted terrorist attacks.’

Now, I try to fight against my tendency to be a pedant when it comes to the English language. I’ve managed to accept that ‘decimate’ now means ‘(almost) completely destroy’ rather than ‘removal of a tenth’. I may even be willing to accept that a ‘score’ has strayed from its true meaning of ‘twenty’ to be just ‘lots’ but ‘scores’ has to be either a minimum of forty or ‘lots and lots’. In a comment I submitted, yesterday, that does not appear on the site, I asked Rob Waugh, the author of the piece, to detail just two of these forty or more attacks.

Of course, the phrase used is ‘attempted terrorist attacks’ and that means you could argue that these attempts happen but don’t get made public. You don’t know just how much danger you are in and that’s why you should be scared. Why, Mr Dacre?

In case, you didn’t get the right degree of fear from ‘scores of attempted terrorist attacks’ the following paragraph restates the point;

‘Ricin is used in an arsenal of terrorist weapons, and has already been at the centre of a number of attempted terrorist attacks in the US.’

Again, I asked in my comment for details of just a couple of these attacks.

There is then another quote from Prof. Baillie;

‘Prof Baillie said: ‘These toxins, such as ricin, have been shown to have been used by nasty people, and nasty countries, to do nasty things.’

I’m hoping to hear from Prof. Baillie and find out who has shown this. The professor doesn’t use the get out of ‘attempted’. He says this has happened. I’m sure that, as a scientist, he will be able to cite the evidence for that statement.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Then, on the basis that one picture is a thousand times scarier than the written word, the article has a photograph of two people in full protective clothing and respirators. This is where the Mail destroys all that has gone before. The caption says;

‘Two crime scene technicians leave the Danish Embassy in Stockholm with a suspicious letter and white powder in 2005. They were using precautionary methods in case it was ricin’

So, in spite of the ‘scores of attempted terrorist attacks’ that have given ricin its ‘gruesome reputation’ as a result of its use ‘by nasty people, and nasty countries, to do nasty things’, the only picture the Mail could find refers to an incident in Sweden, seven years ago, that did not involve ricin – ‘in case it was ricin’ means it wasn’t.

What it might have been, of course, because it usually is, was a harmless white powder sent by someone with a grudge who knows that press reporting about ricin has created the right atmosphere of fear for them to successfully cause terror with talcum powder.  

Sometimes, when you pick on the Mail people suggest you are being unfair because every publication does similar things. But, there is good reason to pick on the Mail. The story first appeared on the Wales Online website2 but there, after many of the same quotes from Prof Baillie, the story continues with;

‘He stressed that the research had been successful in the lab, but stressed it was too early to say definitively how it could be applied.’

And then it adds;

‘Prof Baillie added that the team are also looking at the possibility that tea could have antidotal qualities.’

‘Could have antidotal qualities’ cf. the Mail headline ‘Tea acts as antidote for deadly terrorist poison ricin’. Wales Online at least has the good grace to include the ‘paragraph 19’ payoff saying ‘most of the above is nonsense’, but the Mail Online won’t even do that.

Instead, it continues with its apparent mission to cause fear and concern in the population.

Why, Mr Dacre?

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