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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 27th May 2013

It is a couple of weeks since I wrote about Datura stramonium, jimsonweed, being in the news because of its use as a psychoactive. A few days ago it was back in the news but for an entirely different reason.

Before coming to that, I’ll quickly follow up the earlier story by saying that I never did get a response from the American Association of Poison Control Centers to my query about whether it had said there were thousands of cases every year and whether the claim that there were hundreds of deaths had been wrongly attributed to the AAPCC.

Talking of poison control centers, my first reaction to seeing the headline ‘Supplement poison calls on the rise’ was ‘Oh, goody’ because there needs to be publicity about the potential harm from substances that have no evidential basis and are sold purely to benefit the manufacturers. Reading the story, however, gave a different picture.

The opening sentence,;

‘The Central Ohio Poison Center received nearly twice as many calls last year about dietary and herbal supplements as it did a decade ago’,

Sounds pretty scary though, hopefully, your first reaction will have been ‘Twice what?’ The answer to that comes in the second paragraph which says;

‘The poison center…received 611 calls about supplements in 2012, up from 323 in 2003.’

That’s a bit of a help but it still doesn’t mean very much and you have to go to the Ohio PCC website to find that 611 calls is from a total of around 42,000 or about 1.5% of the total.

There’s a suggestion of the reason for the increase in the third paragraph;

‘The surge in call volume is due in part to far greater prevalence of the supplements than in the past, said Henry Spiller, the poison center’s director’

With no attempt to correlate the increased use with increased calls it is impossible to tell if supplements are doing more or less harm that previously.

Calls to poison control centers, of course, may be for information only with no actual incidence of poisoning. You want to know the level of moderate to severe harm that results. And this is where the disappointment comes for anyone simply wanting to condemn the unregulated sale of herbal or dietary supplements.

‘Since 2004, the poison center has logged 54 hospitalizations requiring intensive care as a result of dietary-supplement use, although the annual number has declined sharply (emphasis added) in recent years’

What Mr Spiller may need to consider, if he hasn’t already, is that the growth of social media and the AAPCC’s presence in places like Twitter may simply have increased awareness about the availability of advice and assistance and that has increased the number of calls.

Suggestions that there is a growing problem are actually welcomed by many on the supply side of this business because they would like to see just enough regulation to give their products a false image of official endorsement without having to submit to the full testing that proper medicines undergo.

The Columbus Dispatch piece points out that consumers cannot know what is actually in many of these products and that brings us back to Datura stramonium.

The English language website of a Finnish media outlet had a story headlined ‘Nine people now affected by datura poisoning’ but it wasn’t about teenagers experimenting with its psychoactive properties. According to the story a batch of mixed frozen vegetables on sale from supermarkets was contaminated with Datura seeds resulting in nine people attending hospital with three being admitted and one having to remain in hospital for a week.

The story reminded me of the pea farmer who told me he had to check his fields for Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, before harvesting his crop because the unripe fruits would pass through all the processing checks.

In addition to the mixed vegetables sold by the supermarket chain, a bean-seed mixture supplied to the catering trade has been withdrawn as a precautionary measure though there are no reports of any poisoning.

There is an interesting aspect to this story. The supermarket was given permission by the Finnish data regulator to mine its loyalty card records and identify the purchasers of the product so as to be able to contact them individually rather than relying on an advertising campaign. It hopes that this will enable it to recover all the possibly contaminated product much more quickly.

How the seeds came to be present is not known and, given that the story has not received widespread attention, I don’t expect to learn the results of the investigation that is underway.

It is a little odd that the media made a great fuss about the recent horsemeat affair that, though deplorable, carried no health risk but does not seem to be interested in this story of actual harm caused by food contamination. You would have thought someone from the Daily Mail could have managed 500 words focussing on the question of how it happened. Especially since it could indulge its fascination with hysterical speculation by suggesting that there might be a terrorist motive.   

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