Surrounded by poisons

Life is a constant struggle, not the least trying to avoid all the poisons around us. In a previous post we compared the toxic activity of a mushroom poison with that of the most toxic snake venom and it was very much a dead heat. But there is so much more.

The golden poison frog (Photo: Wikimedia)

The golden poison frog (Photo: Wikimedia)

Let’s look at the animal kingdom first. A reader pointed out that the poison of the the golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis) might be even more toxic than the snake venom we covered. The skin of the frog is densely coated in a group of alkaloid poisons called batrachotoxins. Batrachotoxin binds to and irreversibly opens the sodium channels of nerve cells preventing them from transmitting impulses to the muscles. When the neuron is no longer capable of firing, the result is total paralysis. And if that’s not enough, the toxin has a double action by also directly influencing the heart muscle leading to heart failure or fibrillation. Certain death will follow.

The golden poison frog can be found in Colombian rainforests. One frog contains about 1 mg of the poison. The lethal dose for an average person is about 0.1 mg, or equivalent to the weight of two grains of table salt. One frog could thus in theory kill at least ten humans. Although rarely or never eaten, the frog is the main source of the poison in the darts used by local indigenous cultures to hunt for food (or in the past presumably to kill enemies so there might be human fatalities). The golden poison frog is probably the most poisonous of any living animal. Not to mention that batrachotoxin is around fifteen times more potent than the plant-based curare (another arrow poison with similar action used by South American Indians), giving the animal kingdom an upper hand in the toxicity race.

The latest plant scare, although dangerous enough, is no match for the golden poison frog. We are talking about the devil’s trumpet. An Italian mother found what she thought was “cime di rapa“, a bitter green broccoli variant also called rapini or broccoli rabe. She planted it in a container on her balcony and picked some that she sprinkled on the family’s evening spaghetti. The whole family fell ill soon after eating their dinner and had to be taken to hospital after vomiting and collapsing. She had mistaken the devil’s trumpet for the rapini plant.

The dangerous devil's trumpet

The dangerous devil’s trumpet (Photo: Ballookey)

Devil’s trumpet (Datura metel) is a shrub-like perennial herb belonging to the nightshade family. It is cultivated worldwide for its chemical and ornamental properties. The plant is one of the 50 fundamental herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is called yáng jīn huā. It is also used as a recreational drug, although ingestion in any form is dangerous. All parts of the plant contain highly poisonous tropane alkaloids that may be fatal in high doses. However, it is toxic also in tiny quantities with symptoms like flushed skin, headaches, hallucinations, and possibly convulsions or even coma. Eating a single leaf can lead to severe side effects.

The active constituents in Datura plants include scopolamine, atropine, hyoscyamine and other tropanes acting on the nervous system. Combined they cause stimulation of the nervous system in low doses and depression of the system at higher doses. It is reported that the leaves of the Datura plant when smoked are hallucinogenic and hypnotic. Ingestion of plant parts may lead to generalised confusion, delirium and powerful hallucinations that often leave the person in a state of panic and severe anxiety.

Many tragic incidents have been the result of modern recreational users ingesting Datura. Media have reported several stories of adolescents and young adults dying or becoming seriously ill from intentionally ingesting Datura. The Italian family was lucky and survived the accidental experience but had to spend several days in hospital.

Stay tuned for more powerful plant toxins in later posts.

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About food science guru
A public health veterinarian and past professor in food safety with life-long experience at national and international levels. Instrumental in assessing public health exposure to beneficial and hazardous chemicals and microorganisms as part of risk assessments.

10 Responses to Surrounded by poisons

  1. The devil’s trumpet accident occurred here in my City, Turin! :)

    • Cesare that is very interesting. I tried to be as accurate as possible. The press all over the world covered this incident but it was all based on AFP reporting. I tried to go back to the initial Italian reporting and noticed a few mistakes. I hope I got it right, what do you think?

      Stefan

      • It’s perfect: the woman found what she thinks were “cime di rapa” on the ground of the local market.
        She put them in the evening’s spaghetti and she sickened, such as the daughter and the nephew. It seems that also the child is right now, but it was nearly a mortal accident!

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