To define poison, Paracelsus, a 15th century physician, said “Everything is poison, nothing is poison. It is the dose that makes the poison”.
What is it about?
A poison is a substance which is likely, after introduction in the organism and according to the dose, the mode of penetration, the state of the subject, to disturb certain vital functions, to seriously damage the organic structures or to involve the death.
As Paracelsus said, poison is made up of toxins that can sometimes have a beneficial effect in small doses. The dose defines the reaction of the organism to the poison: a minimal dose is needed to obtain a toxic effect.
Poisons can enter the body by different routes: ingestion, breathing, skin contact, direct injection into the bloodstream.
Poisons have been used for a very long time: the hunter-gatherers of the Upper Paleolithic used poisons to accentuate the vulnating effect of their hunting weapons. Then the points of throwing weapons used during battles were coated with wolfsbane, in order to improve their efficiency during prehistory.
In ancient Rome
Emperor Claudius, who probably died from poisonous mushrooms, had a son, Britannicus, from a first marriage. Néron orchestrated the death of Britannicus thanks to a poison but, during a first attempt of poisoning, Britannicus had only a simple diarrhoea. At the time of a second attempt, the poison, served to Britannicus at the time of a meal which he took with Néron, killed the young man immediately.
The Borgias and the poison ring
Poison had its heyday during the Renaissance, particularly in Italy with the Borgia family. Rodrigo Borgia, the father, pope under the name of Alexander VI, was involved in several stories of poisoning with his son Cesar Borgia.
The Borgias used all sorts of poisons based on mercury, arsenic, aconite, yew, henbane, phosphorus, poppy, hemlock, etc. Caesar Borgia wore a poison ring that allowed him to poison his enemy by simply shaking his hand (perhaps the check used as a barrier gesture during the covid, could have been the source of many lives saved!) The death of Pope Alexander VI remains a mystery. He could have succumbed to a poisoning, by consuming by inadvertence a poisoned wine, prepared for another than him…
The so-called “poisons” affair
In France, the court of King Louis XIV was marked by the famous affair of poisons. Among the women accused of poisoning, were in particular:
the Brinvilliers : Madame de Brinvilliers was tortured by the water test, which consisted of administering large quantities of water to the condemned, and executed;
the Voisin: an investigation showed the central role played by the Voisin to supply aristocrats with powders. After his execution and that of about thirty other people, Louis XIV decided to close the case as there were so many aristocrats involved in this affair: the Marquise de Montespan, the Duke of Buckingham, the Marshal of Luxembourg, the Countess of Soissons, the Viscountess of Polignac, the Duchess of Angouleme, etc.
Overview of the different poisons
Castor oil, extracted from the seeds, is known to have purgative properties but it can also lead to death when taken in large quantities: Mussolini’s Blackshirts made political opponents drink castor oil, sometimes mixed with gasoline.
In 1978, ricin was used to assassinate Georgi Markov, a dissident Bulgarian writer. At a bus stop in London, Markov felt a sting in his thigh as a man near him picked up his umbrella. Markov was soon hospitalized, his leg bloody and swollen. He died a few days later: his kidneys were blocked, he was vomiting blood and a pulmonary edema prevented him from breathing. At the autopsy, a small ball was removed from his thigh, which, injected by the umbrella, contained ricin, released through tiny pores.
Wolfsbane contains alkaloids, including aconitine. This plant is also called “wolf grass”, because it was used to kill wolves. Hannibal is said to have committed suicide with a mixture of aconite and hemlock to avoid being handed over to the Romans. Wolfsbane is not only used as a poison: it is also an antidote to scorpion venom.
In Latin Atropa belladona, it contains atropine. The plant takes its name from a practice formerly common among the ladies of high society: to increase the diameter of their pupils, they instilled in the eyes drops of a decoction of belladonna or bella dona, “beautiful lady”.
It was used in ancient times to kill people. Socrates was forced to drink it after his conviction.
It is a paralyzing poison that was used by South American Indians to coat their poisoned arrows. In the United States, the lethal injection used to give death to the condemned contains different products, including pancuronium bromide which belongs to the curare family. It can be used for its beneficial effects, in severe cases of tetanus to relax the muscles.
Deadly or hallucinogenic mushrooms
Amanita phalloides and fly agaric are well known deadly fungi in our regions.
Spiders and scorpions
The black widow spider is the only spider present in France that can present a danger, but its bites are rare. In other countries, there are other species of venomous spiders, such as the tarantula and the mygale.
Similarly, scorpions, common in the south of the country, are not very aggressive. However, when they feel threatened, venomous scorpions unfold their tails, which have a poison gland at the end.
Vipers have fangs located in front of the upper jaw, and their bites are venomous. Viper venom contains compounds that act on blood coagulation and inflammation, the diffusion of venom in the body being rather slow.
Cleopatra would have committed suicide thanks to a snake bite, in company of her two maids. However, this thesis is sometimes questioned because of the rapidity with which the queen would have succumbed, whereas the diffusion of snake venom is rather slow.
It is produced by Clostridium botulinum. In the 18th century, an outbreak of botulism in Wildbad, Germany, was caused by a contaminated blood sausage, hence the origin of the word botulin, botulus meaning “blood sausage” in Latin. Botulin can block nerve transmission. Ingestion of the toxin can cause death by respiratory paralysis. Botulin is also used in the form of Botox injections to reduce facial wrinkles.
Many of the applications of bioterrorism have already been discussed in this blog.
The scientist Isaac Newton, who frequently used mercury in his experiments, had all the symptoms of chronic poisoning.
Agnes Sorel, the famous mistress of Charles VII, would have died of mercury poisoning, according to analyses carried out on her bones in 2005.
It comes in the form of a powder with a sweet taste. Its ingestion causes diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration causing a sensation of thirst.
It has been shown that Ötzi, the prehistoric man found in an Austrian glacier, probably suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning due to his activity as a boiler maker.
They can bind to iron present in certain enzymes, such as mitochondrial cytochrome C oxidases. This causes a blockage of cellular respiration.
One example is Rasputin, whose assassination attempt by cyanide poisoning failed.
At the end of the Second World War, several Nazis (including Rommel, Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and Goering) used cyanide to kill themselves. They kept capsules filled with cyanide with them.
War toxins: chlorine, mustard, phosgene.
We have often talked about it here, and we remember the use of Sarin gas by the Aum sect on March 20th 1995 in the Tokyo subway.
The new poisons
The polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian secret service agent and opponent of Vladimir Putin, found political asylum in Great Britain. In November 2006, he became suddenly ill and died within three weeks. The autopsy revealed that he had died of polonium 210 poisoning. According to a report by the Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (Criirad), a few micrograms of polonium could have been enough for this poisoning. Radioactivity was detected on the clothes of Litvinenko’s relatives and in British Airways planes that the assassins probably flew on.
Polonium 210 (210Po), discovered in 1898 by the French physicist Marie Curie, is an element considered one of the most lethal poisons. A metalloid that emits a blue fluorescence, which can become volatile, it is used as a heating source in spacecraft or sometimes as a source of alpha radiation in medicine. Even in very small quantities, this radioactive substance, which is soluble, remains toxic.
When ingested or inhaled, it triggers “radiation sickness” in the body, like other radioactive elements. The alpha particles continuously emitted by 210Po damage an ever-increasing number of cells in the bone marrow, organs, liver, kidneys or blood. Depending on the dose, death can occur within days or weeks – twenty-one days after intoxication for Litvinenko.
It is possible that this product circulates in Russian mafia networks; they could have recovered it from technological centers or hospitals. Were the malicious people who might have introduced it into the food that Litvinenko ingested not themselves irradiated? For the time being, experts say they do not yet know how the “massive dose” entered Litvinenko’s body”. However, traces of 210Po have been detected in the Millennium Hotel, where he had tea on November 1 with two Russians, as well as in the sushi restaurant where he met an Italian contact on the same day.
The Skripal father and daughter
In March 2018, former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yuliya were found unconscious in Salisbury, UK. Later, British authorities labeled the incident as poisoning by a novichok nerve agent, accusing Russia of either being responsible or failing to control a possible leak of the product.
Some time later, two new victims of novichok were found in serious condition in their home, located a dozen kilometers from the Skripals in Salisbury. This British couple lives in Wiltshire, Dawn Sturgess is from Salisbury, and Charlie Rowley from Amesbury. They would have been, in a way, collateral victims of the Skripal assassination by having handled a bottle found at random and containing Novichok.
This opponent of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin is currently in prison where he is purging a sentence for violating his judicial control (he was in a hospital in Berlin to be treated for poisoning!) and as a result had to serve a three and a half year suspended prison sentence to which he had been sentenced in 2014 for embezzlement.
He denounces the corruption of the Russian elites and has been jailed several times for organizing demonstrations.
He is also regularly the victim of physical attacks: in 2017 his eyes were sprayed with an antiseptic product, then, the same year, in prison, abscesses appear on his chest. Most certainly victim of a chemical product, the Russian power evokes an allergic reaction. Then, on August 20, 2020, he enters resuscitation in a serious condition in a hospital in Siberia, after feeling ill in the plane going from Tomsk to Moscow: the plane in which he was traveling, had to make an emergency landing because of the sudden deterioration of his health. “He drank only black tea at the airport. Immediately after takeoff, he lost consciousness”. There is no doubt about the poisoning.
Back in Moscow, in January 21, he is again arrested and events follow: Navalny’s team shows a report denouncing the existence of a “palace” on the edge of the Red Sea and belonging to Vladimir Putin.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirms that Navalny was poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent
Several media (CNN, Bellingcat…) published an investigation accusing specialists in chemical weapons of the FSB of having followed the opponent, including the day of his alleged poisoning.
Alexei Navalny assures that he tricked one of these agents on the phone Konstantin Kudriavtsev, after having presented himself on the phone as an assistant to the Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, close to Vladimir Putin. This agent admitted that he had participated in his poisoning and recognized a detail, the poison was deposited on a seam of the crotch of Navalny’s “underwear”. Navalny’s interlocutor also suggests that he did not personally participate in the poisoning, but in the destruction of evidence after the fact.
At his trial, Navalny said of Vladimir Putin: “He will go down in history as the poisoner of underpants.”
The FSB denounces a “falsification”.
Everyone will make up their own mind about these different cases, which are in fact state terrorism. Nevertheless, we can retain that we are surrounded by more or less toxic poisons. From the red berries of the yew to the leaves of the oleander to the deadly mushrooms, spiders and other poisonous snakes, the threat is always present.
Concerning radioactive products, millions of sources are used in the world (industry, hospitals, research). In the USA, 1 source disappears per day (lost, abandoned, stolen) while in the EU, 70 sources are lost per year.
If we add to this all kinds of chemical products whose use can be diverted (acids, bases…), or even highly toxic products such as toxic warfare agents circulating without any control, sometimes from arsenals diverted in Libya or Syria, there is reason to be vigilant.
One can refer to the multiple websites concerning poisons and the various cases of poisoning cited here.