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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 21st June 2013

It’s been a busy day. First there was the TV company wanting to use some of my pictures to illustrate a programme. That meant signing release forms and sending off the high resolution originals. I won’t say anymore for now because they may not get used in the transmitted item.

And, then, I got a visit from the police.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, growing
in the centre of Kelso

First, I got a phonecall from a police officer who asked if he could come and visit me because they wanted some information about ricin and the castor oil plant. Then he said that he’d drive down from Edinburgh to see me.

He turned up with a colleague and, though the information wasn’t volunteered, I got the impression they were anti-terrorist branch. It seems my interest in ricin has been noticed. They said it was because of my purchase of castor bean seeds but I haven’t done that for a couple of years so either they take a long time to react or they didn’t want to say that they monitor trigger words. They quickly convinced themselves that I’m not a potential terrorist and we had a long chat about ricin and poisonous plants in general. As the pictures show, Ricinus communis is a favourite of local authorities.

But I was pleased by the visit because it led to me solving the mystery of a long-running myth about ricin and castor beans.

One of the oft-repeated claims about castor beans is that ingestion of just one seed can be fatal. I’ve read plenty of case studies of people eating far more than that and surviving so I’ve never really bothered to try and trace its origin.

But, in preparation for the visit from the police, I thumbed through some of my library in case they wanted to see any published information making it clear it is not the danger it is portrayed to be. And, that thumbing led me to a letter to the British Medical Journal from May 1905. Titled ‘Acute Poisoning By A Single Castor-Oil Seed’ and written by A. Gordon Gullan, M.D. LOND., M.R.C.P.LOND., FO.RC.S.ENG., Physician, Liverpool Stanley Hospital, it reports the case of a farm labourer who, on 13th March 1905, while watching ‘castor-oil seeds’ being loaded at Liverpool docks picked up one from a burst bag and chewed and swallowed it.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Small castor oil plant in a flowerbed in the
centre of Duns

‘He noticed that it "burnt his mouth and throat a little, and made his eyes water," and then almost immediately he felt weak and collapsed, his knees giving way, and he staggered to a policeman at the dock entrance.’

Within an hour of eating the seed the man was in hospital and seen by Dr Gullan.

‘The man was then in a condition of great collapse; his face was swollen and blue, his pupils a little dilated, the surface of his body cold, and his hands and feet cold and cyanosed. His respirations were very shallow, and, his temperature could not be registered in the axilla or mouth. His pulse was imperceptible at the wrist; there was no cardiac impulse, and the heart sounds were very feeble and distant. He would reply sensibly when roused, but otherwise remained in a semi-conscious condition.’

Does that sound like castor bean ingestion? According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;

‘Following ingestion of ricin, initial symptoms typically occur in less than 10 hours.’

I suppose ‘almost immediately’ qualifies as ‘less than 10 hours’ but I think the CDC would have said if the effect was immediate.

‘If someone swallows a significant amount of ricin, he or she would likely develop vomiting and diarrhea that may become bloody. Severe dehydration may be the result, followed by low blood pressure. Other signs or symptoms may include seizures, and blood in the urine.’

No mention of swelling, pupil dilation, coldness of the body or shallow respiration. In fact Dr Gullan tells us that because ‘the bowels had not acted since admission’ the patient was given a laxative the next day.

I have no idea what this poor man ate but I’m certain it wasn’t a castor bean that caused his illness. Happily, he was released well on the 18th March. So, the notion that eating one castor bean will produce fatal poisoning is flawed because the man did not eat a castor bean and, in any event, he survived.

I’m so pleased to find that next time I read that one bean is fatal I can scream ‘Gullan 1905’ that I’m not at all put out by the notion that anti-terror police have been monitoring my activities in some way. Given that I don’t know what brought me to their attention, I’ll finish this piece by saying;

It was nice meeting you and I hope you had a safe journey back to Edinburgh.

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