Entries Tagged "poisons"

Page 1 of 3

Ricin as a Terrorist Tool

This paper (full paper behind paywall) — from Environment International (2009) — does a good job of separating fact from fiction:

Abstract: In recent years there has been an increased concern regarding the potential use of chemical and biological weapons for mass urban terror. In particular, there are concerns that ricin could be employed as such an agent. This has been reinforced by recent high profile cases involving ricin, and its use during the cold war to assassinate a high profile communist dissident. Nevertheless, despite these events, does it deserve such a reputation? Ricin is clearly toxic, though its level of risk depends on the route of entry. By ingestion, the pathology of ricin is largely restricted to the gastrointestinal tract where it may cause mucosal injuries; with appropriate treatment, most patients will make a full recovery. As an agent of terror, it could be used to contaminate an urban water supply, with the intent of causing lethality in a large urban population. However, a substantial mass of pure ricin powder would be required. Such an exercise would be impossible to achieve covertly and would not guarantee success due to variables such as reticulation management, chlorination, mixing, bacterial degradation and ultra-violet light. By injection, ricin is lethal; however, while parenteral delivery is an ideal route for assassination, it is not realistic for an urban population. Dermal absorption of ricin has not been demonstrated. Ricin is also lethal by inhalation. Low doses can lead to progressive and diffuse pulmonary oedema with associated inflammation and necrosis of the alveolar pneumocytes. However, the risk of toxicity is dependent on the aerodynamic equivalent diameter (AED) of the ricin particles. The AED, which is an indicator of the aerodynamic behaviour of a particle, must be of sufficiently low micron size as to target the human alveoli and thereby cause major toxic effects. To target a large population would also necessitate a quantity of powder in excess of several metric tons. The technical and logistical skills required to formulate such a mass of powder to the required size is beyond the ability of terrorists who typically operate out of a kitchen in a small urban dwelling or in a small ill-equipped laboratory. Ricin as a toxin is deadly but as an agent of bioterror it is unsuitable and therefore does not deserve the press attention and subsequent public alarm that has been created.

This paper lists all known intoxication attempts, including the famous Markov assassination.

Posted on June 14, 2013 at 7:15 AMView Comments

Security Systems as a Marker for High-Value Targets

If something is protected by heavy security, it’s obviously worth stealing. Here’s an example from the insect world:

Maize plants, like many others, protect themselves with poisons. They pump their roots with highly toxic insecticides called BXDs, which deters hungry mandibles. But these toxins don’t come free. The plant needs energy to act as its own pharmacist, so it distributes the poison to the areas that deserve the greatest fortification — its crown roots.

Maize seedlings grow roots either from the embryo itself (embryonic roots), or from the growing stem (crown roots). Christelle Robert found that the crown roots are especially important. They contain the most nutrients, and their loss matters more to the seedlings. As such, they receive the greatest investment of BXDs; they contain five times more of one particularly toxic compound called DIMBOA.

So, if plant-eating insects want to nibble on the most nutritious roots, they also swallow the highest amount of poison. Instead, they target the more lightly defended embryonic roots, which are less valuable to the plant. But the Western corn rootworm ignores these rules of engagement.

The larva of this beetle eats the roots of maize, corn and other cereals and it’s a significant pest that can ravage entire crops. Its success stems from its ability to turn maize’s defence against it. Robert found that the rootworm, unlike other insects, ignore the embryonic roots and head straight for the crown ones.

When Robert gave rootworms a mutant plant that couldn’t produce BXDs, it lost its interest in the crown roots. Rather than being deterred by the plant’s poisons, the rootworm actually uses them to track down the most nutritious meals.

The rootworms are immune to the poison, of course. Otherwise the trick wouldn’t work.

Paper, behind a paywall.

Posted on November 29, 2011 at 2:13 PMView Comments

Spider Webs Contain Ant Poison

Shichang Zhang, Teck Hui Koh, Wee Khee Seah, Yee Hing Lai, Mark A. Elgar, and Daiqin Li (2011), “A Novel Property of Spider Silk: Chemical Defence Against Ants,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (full text is behind a paywall).

Abstract: Spider webs are made of silk, the properties of which ensure remarkable efficiency at capturing prey. However, remaining on, or near, the web exposes the resident spiders to many potential predators, such as ants. Surprisingly, ants are rarely reported foraging on the webs of orb-weaving spiders, despite the formidable capacity of ants to subdue prey and repel enemies, the diversity and abundance of orb-web spiders, and the nutritional value of the web and resident spider. We explain this paradox by reporting a novel property of the silk produced by the orb-web spider Nephila antipodiana (Walckenaer). These spiders deposit on the silk a pyrrolidine alkaloid (2-pyrrolidinone) that provides protection from ant invasion. Furthermore, the ontogenetic change in the production of 2-pyrrolidinone suggests that this compound represents an adaptive response to the threat of natural enemies, rather than a simple by-product of silk synthesis: while 2-pyrrolidinone occurs on the silk threads produced by adult and large juvenile spiders, it is absent on threads produced by small juvenile spiders, whose threads are sufficiently thin to be inaccessible to ants.

Posted on November 28, 2011 at 12:55 PMView Comments

Rat that Applies Poison to its Fur

The African crested rat applies tree poison to its fur to make itself more deadly.

The researchers made their discovery after presenting a wild-caught crested rat with branches and roots of the Acokanthera tree, whose bark includes the toxin ouabain.

The animal gnawed and chewed the tree’s bark but avoided the nontoxic leaves and fruit. The rat then applied the pasty, deadly drool to spiky flank hairs. Microscopes later revealed that the hairs are actually hollow quills that rapidly absorb the ouabain-saliva mixture, offering an unpleasant surprise to predators attempt to taste the rat.

Posted on August 12, 2011 at 11:13 AMView Comments

Halloween and the Irrational Fear of Stranger Danger

From the Wall Street Journal:

Take “stranger danger,” the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” and “Brady Bunch” costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

Anyway, you’d think that word would get out: poisoned candy not happening. But instead, most Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating, so they won’t be tempted to eat any candy before bringing it home for inspection.


Then along came new fears. Parents are warned annually not to let their children wear costumes that are too tight—those could seriously restrict breathing! But not too loose either—kids could trip! Fall! Die!

Treating parents like idiots who couldn’t possibly notice that their kid is turning blue or falling on his face might seem like a losing proposition, but it caught on too.

Halloween taught marketers that parents are willing to be warned about anything, no matter how preposterous, and then they’re willing to be sold whatever solutions the market can come up with. Face paint so no mask will obscure a child’s vision. Purell, so no child touches a germ. And the biggest boondoggle of all: an adult-supervised party, so no child encounters anything exciting, er, “dangerous.”

I remember one year when I filled a few Pixie Stix with garlic powder. But that was a long time ago.

EDITED TO ADD (11/2): Interesting essay:

The precise methods of the imaginary Halloween sadist are especially interesting. Apples and home goods occasionally appear in the stories, but the most common culprit is regular candy. This crazed person would purchase candy, open the wrapper, and DO SOMETHING to it, something that would be designed to hurt the unsuspecting child. But also something that would be sufficiently obvious and clumsy that the vigilant parent could spot it (hence the primacy of candy inspection).

The idea that someone, even a greedy child, might consume candies hiding razor blades and needles without noticing seems to strain credulity. And how, exactly, a person might go about coating a jelly bean with arsenic or lacing a molasses chew with Drano has never been clear to me. Yet it is an undisputed fact of Halloween hygiene: Unwrapped candy is the number-one suspect. If Halloween candy is missing a wrapper, or if the wrapper seems loose or flimsy, the candy goes straight into the trash.

Here is where I think we can discover some deeper meanings in the myth of the Halloween sadist. It’s all about the wrappers.

Wrappers are like candy condoms: Safe candy is candy that is covered and sealed. And not just any wrapper will do. Loose, casual, cheap wrappers, the kind of wrappers one might find on locally produced candies or non-brand-name candies, are also liable to send candy to Halloween purgatory. The close, tight factory wrapper says “sealed for your protection.” And the recognized brand name on the wrapper also lends a reassuring aura of corporate responsibility and accountability. It’s a basic axiom of consumer faith: The bigger the brand, the safer the candy.

Ironic, since we know that the most serious food dangers are those that originate from just the kind of large-scale industrial food processing environments that also bring us name-brand, mass-market candies. Salmonella, E. coli, and their bacterial buddies lurking in bagged salads and pre-formed hamburger patties are real food dangers; home-made cookies laced with ground glass are not.

EDITED TO ADD (11/11): Wondermark comments.

Posted on October 31, 2010 at 10:02 AMView Comments

Plant Security Countermeasures

The essay is about veganism and plant eating, but I found the descriptions of plant security countermeasures interesting:

Plants can’t run away from a threat but they can stand their ground. “They are very good at avoiding getting eaten,” said Linda Walling of the University of California, Riverside. “It’s an unusual situation where insects can overcome those defenses.” At the smallest nip to its leaves, specialized cells on the plant’s surface release chemicals to irritate the predator or sticky goo to entrap it. Genes in the plant’s DNA are activated to wage systemwide chemical warfare, the plant’s version of an immune response. We need terpenes, alkaloids, phenolics — let’s move.

“I’m amazed at how fast some of these things happen,” said Consuelo M. De Moraes of Pennsylvania State University. Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues did labeling experiments to clock a plant’s systemic response time and found that, in less than 20 minutes from the moment the caterpillar had begun feeding on its leaves, the plant had plucked carbon from the air and forged defensive compounds from scratch.

Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.

Enemies of the plant’s enemies are not the only ones to tune into the emergency broadcast. “Some of these cues, some of these volatiles that are released when a focal plant is damaged,” said Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis, “cause other plants of the same species, or even of another species, to likewise become more resistant to herbivores.”

There’s more in the essay.

Posted on December 23, 2009 at 7:50 AMView Comments

A Useful Side-Effect of Misplaced Fear

A study in the British Journal of Criminology makes the point that drink-spiking date-raping is basically an urban legend:

Abstract. There is a stark contrast between heightened perceptions of risk associated with drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) and a lack of evidence that this is a widespread threat. Through surveys and interviews with university students in the United Kingdom and United States, we explore knowledge and beliefs about drink-spiking and the linked threat of sexual assault. University students in both locations are not only widely sensitized to the issue, but substantial segments claim first- or second-hand experience of particular incidents. We explore students’ understanding of the DFSA threat in relationship to their attitudes concerning alcohol, binge-drinking, and responsibility for personal safety. We suggest that the drink-spiking narrative has a functional appeal in relation to the contemporary experience of young women’s public drinking.

In an article on the study in The Telegraph, the authors said:

Among young people, drink spiking stories have attractive features that could “help explain” their disproportionate loss of control after drinking alcohol, the study found.

Dr Burgess said: “Our findings suggest guarding against drink spiking has also become a way for women to negotiate how to watch out for each other in an environment where they might well lose control from alcohol consumption.”


“As Dr Burgess observes, it is not scientific evidence which keeps the drug rape myth alive but the fact that it serves so many useful functions.”

Basically, the hypothesis is that perpetuating the fear of drug-rape allows parents and friends to warn young women off excessive drinking without criticizing their personal choices. The fake bogeyman lets people avoid talking about the real issues.

Posted on November 17, 2009 at 5:58 AMView Comments

Attacking the Food Supply

Terrorists attacking our food supply is a nightmare scenario that has been given new life during the recent swine flu outbreak. Although it seems easy to do, understanding why it hasn’t happened is important. G.R. Dalziel, at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has written a report chronicling every confirmed case of malicious food contamination in the world since 1950: 365 cases in all, plus 126 additional unconfirmed cases. What he found demonstrates the reality of terrorist food attacks.

It turns out 72% of the food poisonings occurred at the end of the food supply chain — at home — typically by a friend, relative, neighbour, or co-worker trying to kill or injure a specific person. A characteristic example is Heather Mook of York, who in 2007 tried to kill her husband by putting rat poison in his spaghetti.

Most of these cases resulted in fewer than five casualties — Mook only injured her husband in this incident — although 16% resulted in five or more. Of the 19 cases that claimed 10 or more lives, four involved serial killers operating over several years.

Another 23% of cases occurred at the retail or food service level. A 1998 incident in Japan, where someone put arsenic in a curry sold at a summer festival, killing four and hospitalising 63, is a typical example. Only 11% of these incidents resulted in 100 or more casualties, while 44% resulted in none.

There are very few incidents of people contaminating the actual food supply. People deliberately contaminated a water supply seven times, resulting in three deaths. There is only one example of someone deliberately contaminating a crop before harvest — in Australia in 2006 — and the crops were recalled before they could be sold. And in the three cases of someone deliberately contaminating food during packaging and distribution, including a 2005 case in the UK where glass and needles were baked into loaves of bread, no one died or was injured.

This isn’t the stuff of bioterrorism. The closest example occurred in 1984 in the US, where members of a religious group known as the Rajneeshees contaminated several restaurant salad bars with salmonella enterica typhimurium, sickening 751, hospitalising 45, but killing no one. In fact, no one knew this was malicious until a year later, when one of the perpetrators admitted it.

Almost all of the food contaminations used conventional poisons such as cyanide, drain cleaner, mercury, or weed killer. There were nine incidents of biological agents, including salmon­ella, ricin, and faecal matter, and eight cases of radiological matter. The 2006 London poisoning of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko with polonium-210 in his tea is an example of the latter.

And that assassination illustrates the real risk of malicious food poisonings. What is discussed in terrorist training manuals, and what the CIA is worried about, is the use of contaminated food in targeted assassinations. The quantities involved for mass poisonings are too great, the nature of the food supply too vast and the details of any plot too complicated and unpredictable to be a real threat. That becomes crystal clear as you read the details of the different incidents: it’s hard to kill one person, and very hard to kill dozens. Hundreds, thousands: it’s just not going to happen any time soon. The fear of bioterror is much greater, and the panic from any bioterror scare will injure more people, than bioterrorism itself.

Far more dangerous are accidental contaminations due to negligent industry practices, such as the 2006 spinach E coli and, more recently, peanut salmonella contaminations in the US, the 2008 milk contaminations in China, and the BSE-infected beef from earlier this decade. And the systems we have in place to deal with these accidental contaminations also work to mitigate any intentional ones.

In 2004, the then US secretary of health and human services, Tommy Thompson, said on Fox News: “I cannot understand why terrorists have not attacked our food supply. Because it is so easy to do.”

Guess what? It’s not at all easy to do.

This essay previously appeared in The Guardian.

Posted on May 14, 2009 at 6:24 AMView Comments

New Technology to Detect Chemical, Biological, and Explosive Agents


“We have found we can potentially detect an incredibly small quantity of material, as small as one dust-speck-sized particle weighing one trillionth of a gram, on an individual’s clothing or baggage,” Farquar said. “This is important because if a person handles explosives they are likely to have some remaining residue.”

Using a system they call Single-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometry, or SPAMS, the Livermore scientists already have developed and tested the technology for detecting chemical and biological agents.

The new research expands SPAMS’ capabilities to include several types of explosives that have been used worldwide in improvised explosive devices and other terrorist attacks.

“SPAMS is a sensitive, specific, potential option for airport and baggage screening,” Farquar said. “The ability of the SPAMS technology to determine the identity of a single particle could be a valuable asset when the target analyte is dangerous in small quantities or has no legal reason for being present in an environment.”

Posted on June 23, 2008 at 6:07 AMView Comments

1 2 3

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.