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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 25th June 2013

'Yeah, we're all wonderful, wonderful people
So when did we all get so fearful?'
Read All About It (Part II)
©Sony/ATV Music Publishing (UK) Limited, Stellar Songs Ltd.

A number of unrelated events have set me thinking about fear. Three happened today but they made me think about other recent things.

It started with me seeing some tweets from The 8th World Conference of the Science Journalist. They concerned Deborah Blum’s talk on ‘Chemophobia’. Someone posted this picture of the splendid lectern  and the opening slide. I’ve read Deborah’s take on this topic before. It concerns the way some companies use ‘chemical free’ to promote their products as being better for the consumer and the environment. Nothing, of course, is chemical free because everything is made of chemicals. But using this tag is designed to cause fear in the minds of buyers. If a product doesn’t say ‘chemical free’ it must be dangerous.

In the plant world, of course, the tag becomes ‘natural’. A natural plant or herb extract MUST be better. ‘Natural’ plant extracts, of course, includes aristolochic acid, coniine, strychnine, hyoscine, nicotine, ricin – you get the picture.

Making us fearful of ‘chemicals’ manipulates our actions.

The second fearful story came about when a new follower on Twitter tweeted to say how he’d found my website. He linked to a thread on ‘streetlife’ about plants in a public park. The originator says that he has seen ‘an absolutely magnificent crop of ultra-toxic BellaDonna (aka "Deadly Nightshade")’ growing near a children’s play area but then goes on to give a description proving that the plants aren’t Atropa belladonna.

Someone else visited the park and said all they had seen was ‘Lords & Ladies’, Arum maculatum. That fits the description and is right for the time of year. Their post continued;

‘I emailed my contact at NSC, and he agreed it wasn't deadly nightshade, but he was going to ask Glendale (the contractors) to remove it anyway, so it does not cause concern.’

The logical progression from that is for all parks to be concreted over and have no plants in them because once you point out that a plant could be hazardous officialdom is, generally, too fearful to decide that the risk is vanishingly small and no action need be taken.

I was pleased to read my new follower’s comment;

‘Once you start removing poisonous plants you might be surprised how far you have to go......’

Once you create the fear it becomes hard to get people to become rational about the actual level of risk.

Because scientists rarely commit 100% to a fact, non-scientists believe that the doubt proves a reality. Saying ‘As far as I’m aware’ or ‘All the evidence, so far, suggests…’ and the like is enough to leave fear in some people’s minds.

And, of course, irrational fear lies behind the visit I had last Friday from the police.

But the worst example of the problems that can come from spreading irrational fear came when I caught part of a daytime TV show. They were discussing the decision of The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to recommend that a specific group of postmenopausal women who are at high risk of breast cancer and have not had the disease should be offered a course of tamoxifen because this had been shown to be beneficial, overall, in reducing the incidence of breast cancer for women whose choice had been between having a mastectomy or undergoing regular screening to catch the disease in its early stages.

No drugs are without side effects and tamoxifen is believed to increase the risk of cancer of the womb lining but NICE has evaluated all the evidence and concluded that there is a population based benefit in offering this preventative medication.

A female journalist on the TV show’s panel demonstrated that she had no understanding of relative risk or population based benefits and thought it was appalling that women were being told to take a drug that caused cancer. Her comments relied heavily on the language of fear and were so very similar to the sort of tone of much of the anti-MMR comment that we know has caused harm that it was quite disheartening to realise that we don’t seem to have learnt anything from that experience.

I began with a quote so I’ll end with one;

A life lived in fear is a life half lived.
Strictly Ballroom (1992)© M&A Productions

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