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Monthly Archives: February 2010

3 Common Forensics Fiction Writing Errors

My guest today is Brooklyn White from The Forensic Science Technician: Online School Guide with some thoughts on common errors writers make when employing forensics in their stories. Brooklyn, thanks for your insights.

3 Common Forensics Fiction Writing Errors

There’s nothing better than a racy crime thriller on a rainy day (or in keeping with the recent weather, a snowy day) to keep you company; combined with the pleasure of a few hot mugs of apple cider, it’s bliss to have nothing else to do but turn the pages of your book and revel in the story as it unfolds and reveals the killer as the end nears. But if there’s one thing that spoils my mood and ruins the day, it’s to find that the book is not my cup of tea because it contains the following of my pet peeves:

Too much detail: Ever wonder why television series that feature forensics based crime stories work so well? It’s because they gloss over unnecessary details, especially those that are too scientific and hard for the layman to understand. Even if they need to include a few details, they explain it in plain terms through a person on the team who is not a science person – like Booth on the television series Bones. But unlike on television, there is no middleman to translate geek-speak to common terms in books. So detail becomes dreary and slows down the pace of the story.

Too complicated plots: Most readers of crime novels are basically looking for a simple whodunit with villains and heroes coupled with forensic science as an interesting tool that helps uncover the MO and subsequently the perpetrator of the crime. When you throw in too many twists and turns that complicate the plot and also fail to explain a few of them or leave loose ends without tying them up, you’ve lost your reader. They may be forced to get through this book, but they’re definitely not repeating their mistake and buying any more of your work.

Repetitive plots: And finally, opening a new novel only to realize within a few pages that the plot or characters are similar to other works of the author is one of the worst disappointments for an avid crime reader. Writers must make the effort to mix it up, change their usual formulae, and capture the attention of the reader with the story rather than resorting to cheap gimmicks or riding on the success of their previous best-seller.

Forensics crime fiction that has these errors will not be well received because fans and casual readers expect pace, suspense and innovation in every novel they read, and too much attention to unnecessary detail, too complicated plots and the same old storyline are definite speed breakers that end up ruining any good thriller.

This guest post is contributed by Brooklyn White, who writes on the topic of Forensic Science Technician Schools. She can be reached at brookwhite26@gmail.com

 
4 Comments

Posted by on February 27, 2010 in Forensic Psychiatry, Writing

 

Dr. Katherine Ramsland and the Criminal Mind, Part 2

It is my great pleasure to have Katherine back for Part 2 of our interview.

DPL: Welcome to the second round of Writer’s Forensics Blog. Let me start with this: When is a psychological autopsy employed and what can it tell investigators?

KR:  This is one of my favorite activities in forensic investigations, because psychologists get to do a little detective work. In death certifications, there are three important matters: the cause, mechanism, and mode or manner of death. The cause is an instrument or physical agent used to bring about death (gun, knife, poison, rope), the mechanism is the pathological agent that resulted in the death (bleeding, loss of oxygen), and the manner of death, according to the NASH classification, is labeled as natural, an accident, a suicide, or a homicide. However, sometimes the factors for deciding on the manner of death are not clear. Thus, it becomes an “undetermined” death, or if an investigation is still ongoing, it’s “undetermined pending.” (Some death investigators add suicide-by-cop as yet another category, but I think that’s a form of suicide.) A psychological autopsy, which involves an extensive victimology, may assist the coroner or medical examiner in clearing up the mystery about manner of death. Psychological factors, such as the deceased person’s state of mind prior to death (anger, depression, anxiety, fear), can make the difference.

DPL: You have a chapter in your book on Prospective Profiling. What is that and how does it work?

KR:  Generally, behavioral profiling is done after a crime is committed, to read the behavioral clues at a scene. This is retrospective profiling. However, in rare cases, certain categories of offender are so behaviorally consistent that you can actually do a risk analysis for this behavior if a specific person appears to fit the category. Healthcare serial killers, for example, tend to behave in similar ways for similar reasons. However, you have to be careful with this method, because it encourages investigators to think there’s a blueprint for certain offenders and they might then try to measure suspects against it. That’s not a wise approach in most cases. I probably shouldn’t even refer to it as profiling, since it[‘s actually risk or threat assessment, but since it was on the TV series, I discussed it in the book. Too often people think there’s a “profile of a serial killer,” as if we have a distinct pattern a priori that will identify the bad guy, There’s no such thing. This is an idea spun by news media and some crime novelists or film-makers, and it has created a lot of confusion.

DPL: Psychopath, sociopath, or borderline personality disorders? I’ve heard these terms used almost interchangeably. Is there a difference or are they interchangeable?

KR: I hesitate to respond, since they’re all being re-organized and redefined as we speak (not to mention that it would take a lot of time and space to fully address it). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which offers the diagnostic criteria used in the U.S., is going through changes for its fifth edition, so I refer people to that site. It’s all there – how we currently diagnose these conditions and how we will probably make changes. The word “sociopath,” is simply a throw-back from earlier decades and it’s not in the manual, but psychopathic type will be in the next one, and the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised is the best diagnostic tool for it. Again, it would take a while to untangle all the conceptual intricacies in the way in which these two labels have crossed paths over the past fifty years, so I’ll pass, or refer readers to my writing on it for the Crime Library, now part of TruTV. By the way, borderline personality disorder should never be used interchangeably with the other two. It’s not that similar, aside from the manipulativeness. Psychopathy is much closer to narcissistic personality disorder, because its care is narcissism.

DPL: Doctors, nurses, and others who work in the healthcare industry are in a unique position to do harm to helpless patients and there are many cases of serial killers within the healthcare profession. What do you believe is the driving force behind these killings? Are these people different from your run-of-the-mill serial killer, if there is such a thing, or are they simply different chapters of the same book?

KR: A healthcare serial killer (HCSK) may be any type of employee in the healthcare system who uses his or her position to murder at least two patients in two separate incidents for self-centered purposes, with the psychological capacity for more killing. (The HCSK generally does kill more than two people.) This makes them like many other serial killers in a basic sense. The offender might be a physician or nurse, male or female, or any of the support staff who work closely with key medical personnel (or even a team). The first comprehensive study of HCSKs indicated that between 1975 and 2005, there were over seventy-five such cases in civilized societies (half in the U.S.), with more suspected and several that cannot be fully investigated. A rare few enter the profession as predatory “angels of death,” because they see the system’s vulnerability, not to mention the patients’. Most transform into killers on the job, sometimes via initially benign motives. Coworkers and potential patients want to know how to spot dangerous nurses before harm is done, but often these killers do not stand out. They may even be exemplary at their jobs, and thus they garner little suspicion.

The available cases indicate that doctors who commit serial murder often kill from the desire to feel a godlike sense of power over patients or from experimental curiosity. They view themselves as superior, and thus their decision to kill is often narcissistic and fueled by their fantasies of power and entitlement. Nurses, on the other hand, often feel put upon and undervalued—especially the males. Their killing sprees appear to have other motives, such as gaining attention, finding a small realm of power in an otherwise powerless world, assuaging depression, paying back an unfair system, and acting out to relieve frustration or workload. A few female HCSKs have been diagnosed with Munchhausen syndrome by proxy, or with severe depression. The occasional HCSK is just someone who feels overburdened and kills patients to ease the workload, and a few have been nurses merely to enrich themselves with life insurance payments or other government subsidies.

DPL: Thanks for being with us. You’ve given us a lot to think about.

If you write crime fiction, I strongly recommend you read The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds. It provides a wealth of thought-provoking information.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland chairs the Department of Social Sciences at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches forensic psychology and graduate-level criminal justice.

Visit Dr. Ramsland’s Website

 
4 Comments

Posted by on February 24, 2010 in Forensic Psychiatry, Interviews

 

Stab Wounds Don’t Always Kill

Writers often ask me questions about various traumas and how they will affect the victim. Maybe it’s a gunshot wound, or a knife wound, or a blow to the head, or even a push down the stairs. The problem with answering these questions is that almost anything can happen. A gunshot wound can be a minor flesh wound, or it can be immediately fatal — usually if it enters the heart, the brain, on the upper portion of the spinal cord. The gunshot wound could cause damage to internal organs such as the lungs or liver and the victim could bleed to death rapidly, or slowly, or not at all. The same can be said of knife wounds and blunt trauma. Ask any emergency room physician and they will tell you that these types of injuries come in 1000 flavors.

Some people who are shot or stabbed don’t even know it happened. The excitement and trauma of the situation often has a “numbing effect.” They might feel something but not what they would expect. No sharp, hot pain but rather something milder and more subtle. They might feel nothing at all. Later they will, but initially the shock of the situation tends to blunt their sensations and they are totally unaware that something significant has happened.

This is the reason when someone who has suffered some trauma from a fight or a gunshot or an automobile accident and is brought to the ER, the Doc will examine them from head to foot and front to back. Most people are aware of their injuries while others are not. Some injuries go unnoticed by the victim during this initial period. So it is up to the ER Doc to do a thorough exam and to make sure that there are no occult injuries that are being overlooked. There have been more than a few cases of someone being treated for one injury while another, maybe even something more life-threatening injury is not detected. For a while anyway. It’s something that should never happen, but it does.

That brings us to the case of Julia Popova. This young Russian woman was apparently the victim of a purse snatcher who plunged a 6-inch knife into her upper back. She was totally unaware until she got home and her parents saw the knife protruding from the base of her neck. They immediately took her to the hospital.

Why was she unaware of this injury and, more importantly, how did she survive it? As I stated above, the shock of the situation numbed her enough so that she didn’t feel the blade enter or remain in her back. Also, she was lucky. Very lucky. Had the blade struck a major blood vessel, she would have bled profusely. Had it struck her spinal column, she would have dropped into a paralyzed heap. Had it struck her lung, she would’ve become extremely short of breath and would’ve sprayed blood with every exhalation. In any of these circumstances she would have known she had been seriously injured and was in great danger of dying at the scene.

So when you’re crafting your stories and you want someone to suffer a gunshot wound or a knife wound be sure to take into account that almost anything can happen and that unlike the movies a single gunshot or stab wound does not drop someone to the ground or cause sudden death. It can, but it doesn’t very often.

 

Dr. Katherine Ramsland and the Criminal Mind, Part 1

Want to know what makes the really bad guys tick? How they think? How they plan their deeds? What’s behind the scenes of the hit TV show, “Criminal Minds”? If so, you must read Dr. Katherine Ramsland’s new book The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds.

As the first half of a two part interview, it is my great pleasure to have Katherine as my guest today

DPL: Welcome to the Writer’s Forensics Blog. My first question has to do with fantasy. It is well known that fantasy is an important driving force for many serial predators. How do these fantasies develop and what factor or factors pushes the predator from fantasy to action?

KR: Well, Doug, as you know, there’s no single factor or typical progression, but it does seem to be true that fantasies offer a hideout for kids who have difficulty with stress, abuse, disappointment, and depression. Fantasies also offer an arena for sexual stimulation, closure, mastery, and narcissistic satisfaction. Thus, they become part of a person’s development. In the case of offenders, the way that certain fantasies acquire content appears to be a factor in motivating crimes like rape and sexual homicide. Violent fantasies often involve associating pleasure with torture or death and the way a crime plays out indicates the fantasy’s pattern, i.e, exactly what arouses the offender. Once successfully acted out, the fantasy becomes a strong motivator to repeat it, and this usually means adding more details and intensity, possibly more victims. Some victims are selected in virtue of having traits that fit the offender’s fantasy scenario, while others might just be victims of opportunity.

We see a lot of evidence among offenders, especially of serial crimes, of what we call a “compartmentalized” self. They have developed a persona that makes them seem ordinary, responsible, and socially appropriate, while covertly they can nurture a darker side through a vivid fantasy life. As rapists and killers get away with their crimes, they learn how to deflect others from discovering their secrets and they devise different sets of values for their compartments. Because their secret lives are generally more exciting and satisfying, fantasies grow more perverse. Through imagined scenarios that allow them to create an alternate identity – a mental avatar, if you will — offenders can participate in acts that lack accountability.  As Ted Bundy once described it, this private arena is entirely separate and controlled. It’s their secret source of power and pleasure, and they often get addicted.

DPL: MO versus signature. What’s the difference and when investigators attempt to link crime scenes to one another, which of these is most useful?

KR: The modus operandi, or the way a perpetrator decides to commit a crime, may change as the offender learns and perfects his crimes, or as different circumstances dictate.  However, the core motivating structure of a signature tends to remain static, because it arises from personality factors rather than what is necessary to kill.  Signature crimes have not had many systematic studies, and the myth has arisen that the “ritual” at the basis of personation always presents in the same way, but in fact, as many as fifty percent of offenders will experiment with their rituals. What drives the ritual might be a primal compulsion, but different victims and different situations present new opportunities to tinker. Thus, you may see a trend in the signature, but it won’t always manifest in exactly the same way.

The study of signatures is fascinating. We’ve had killers who bite, who tie specific types of knots, who drink blood, who remove the eyes, who take shoes, and who stick items into orifices. A serial killer in India always left beer cans next to victims, while in Greece, another stabbed each of four elderly prostitutes exactly four times in the neck. Signatures are often compulsive, but some are done for effect. Many offenders have posed a corpse in a provocative sexual position, carved something on a body, or taken a souvenir to aid in reliving the thrill of murder. Some force a victim to read a script. Anything goes, really, because there is no limit to what an offender can fantasize.  In addition, killers who keep up with investigative advances plant “signatures” to try to deflect the investigation. Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” admitted to doing this.

DPL: Some serial killers are collectors. I know the objects that they collect are often used later so they can relive the crime. What are some of the most unusual collected objects that you have run across in your career?

KR: Some of them have been mentioned above, because they’re part of the signature: I’d say the eyeball collector was among the most gruesome. I’ve also heard of pieces being cut from genitalia, and several serial killers have removed internal organs, tongues, teeth, hunks of flesh, and lips. One killer collected the voices of his victims on a tape recorder, making them read a script. A few kept photographs of their victims being torture or terrified. Another collected locks of hair. Typical items include rings, shoes, necklaces, and underwear. One of the weirdest was a necrophile who would watch the papers for obituaries of young girls and then go dig them up and keep the bodies with him as long as he could stand it. Of course, Dennis Nilsen, Ed Gein, and Jeff Dahmer also kept bodies and body parts.

DPL: I often read stories where the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program comes into play and in many of these stories it seems as though almost anyone can pick up the phone and get the information they need. How does ViCAP really work? Who can add to the database and who can retrieve the data?

KR: ViCAP, or the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (sometimes spelled VICAP), is a national computer network used to link serious crimes, from rape to arson to fatal product tampering to murder. ViCAP arose from the need for a central database for linking diverse cases to a single offender, especially when offenders were highly mobile. ViCAP data are collected from police departments around the country, via several criteria: solved, unsolved and attempted homicides (especially involving kidnapping or suspected to be part of a series); unidentified bodies in which the manner of death is suspected to be homicide; sexual offenses, and missing-persons cases in which foul play appears to have played a part. With serial crimes, the key lies in finding distinct commonalities among incidents, and enhanced informatics has made it possible for more jurisdictions to acquire such data at a faster rate.

ViCAP was envisioned as a national clearinghouse for law enforcement, with a vast database of cases from around the country, although it did not quite turn out that way.  Investigators did not like to fill out the long, time-consuming forms, and many investigators perceived ViCAP as just another part of the government bureaucracy.

Agents in charge revamped the software and the questionnaire, and fifty desktop computers, loaded with the software, were given out to agencies in each state.  More analysts were hired to respond to cases and answer questions, and more applications for using ViCAP were offered to cold case squads. It became easier to query a case and learn if it was open or closed, as well as to acquire information about an offender or victim. There is also now a ViCAP summary report that offered a quick glance at pertinent facts, a better data retrieval scheme, and the ability to import maps or images into case reports.

DPL: Thanks for being with us. You’ve given us a lot to think about.

If you write crime fiction, I strongly recommend you read The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds. It provides a wealth of thought-provoking information.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland chairs the Department of Social Sciences at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches forensic psychology and graduate-level criminal justice.

Dr. Ramsland’s Website

Part 2 coming soon.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2010 in Forensic Psychiatry, Interviews

 

Arsenic and Old Lace: The True Story

Few people know that the stage play Arsenic and Old Lace was based on real events. The central character in the murders, Amy Archer-Gilligan, was a very clever serial killer whose victims numbered somewhere between 20 and 100, including some of her husbands.

Playwright Joseph Kesselring created the characters Abby and Martha Brewster to fill the role of Amy when he penned his comical play in 1939. In the play, the two sisters ran a boarding house and knocked off a series of elderly men using Elderberry wine laced with arsenic. Arsenic and Old Lace has long been a staple of community theaters throughout the world and has been made into more than one movie, the most famous being the Frank Capra production, starring Cary Grant.

The real-life case is not a comedy. Amy Archer-Gilligan operated the Archer Home for Aged People in Winston, Connecticut. After her first husband died in 1910 she remarried but her second husband Michael Gilligan didn’t last very long. He died just three months after the wedding of what was called an “acute bilous attack,” a fancy word at that time for severe indigestion. His death and that of many other residents finally led to a 1916 article in the Hartford Courant under the headline “Police Believe Archer Home for Aged a Murder Factory.” A police investigation soon followed.

Amy was ultimately tried and convicted. The evidence against her included: the exhumation of Michael Gilligan and several deceased residents of her facility, all showing either arsenic or strychnine in their system; Amy’s purchase of a large quantity of arsenic, which according to her was to “kill rats;” and Michael Gilligan’s will, which had been drawn up the night before his death and appeared to have been written by Amy.

She was originally sentenced to death in 1917 but this conviction was overturned and she was retried in 1919, this time using the insanity defense and ultimately getting life in prison. In 1924 she was declared insane and transferred to a mental hospital where she remained until April 1962 where she died at the age of 89.

 

America’s First Toxicology Team by Katherine Ramsland

My guest blogger today is Dr. Katherine Ramsland and her thoughts on an excellent book: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

In 1915, an exasperated city commissioner complained about the corruption and negligence in Manhattan’s coroner’s office, for good reason. The pathologists lacked forensic background, autopsies were rarely performed, and few employed at this office had any respect for science. Reformist Mayor John P. Mitchell demanded change, but he was ousted before he could achieve it. Still, his voice had been heard and New York’s governor followed through. He appointed the first chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, to conduct all of the city’s death investigations. Norris had studied under Europe’s leading forensic practitioners and knew he would need a staff toxicologist. Despite a tight budget, he dug into his own pocket to hire Alexander O. Gettler. Together, they formed an invincible team with high standards, incredible stamina, and the type of persistence that turned investigation into science. With his wealth and flair, Norris became a legendary figure and by 1934, he’d created a Department of Forensic Medicine at New York University’s College of Medicine.

It was the age of poison, as award-winning science author Deborah Blum depicts in her new book The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Penguin). The number of poison-related deaths she reports was staggering. Not only was criminal poisoning pervasive during the 1920s but toxic substances in daily life from cars and cleaning solvents caused numerous deaths as well. In addition, Norris and Gettler faced attempts during Prohibition to serve bootleg booze, often laced with toxins. Even chloroform was a killer, and the book opens with a healthcare serial killer who used it to dispatch the elderly.

Deborah Blum

Along with a solid presentation of forensic history, Blum offers dramatic tales to demonstrate how a diverse array of poisons debilitated the human body. A longtime fan of chemistry, she researched cyanide, thallium, toxic alcohols, arsenic, mercury and even CO2. Her tales about radium poisoning are shocking, as is her discovery of deliberate poisoning by the U. S. government. Framing this information in state-of-the-art knowledge from a century ago, she takes readers right into America’s first dedicated toxicology lab.

Because no other U. S. city at this time had such a set-up, Gettler and Norris had to design one themselves, decide on its tools, and invent a methodology that would stand up in court. They had no help from mentors, textbooks, or educational programs. In fact, at this time, little was scientifically known about how these poisons affected human organs, so these men carried out focused analyses as part of their enormously busy schedules. Norris paid for the equipment, while Gettler purchased chemical supplies and raw liver for experiments.

For example, to test how carbon monoxide might be implicated in a death, they designed an airtight corpse-size box with a gasket through which they could pump in CO2. Unclaimed cadavers were exposed to this toxic air for 24 and 36 hours. The results indicated that the CO2 levels in their blood did not change. Thus, Norris could now prove that if CO2 blood levels were toxic, the poison was introduced ante-mortem.

Blum, a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, enjoys researching the interface of science with society. “How does science change society and how does society change science?” she wonders.  “All of my books try to get at that – the way science affects culture, and vice versa. Beyond that, I also have a deep affection for chemistry.” She discovered that telling the story of early forensic medicine via chapters devoted to specific poisons helped to organize a massive amount of material.“That way, I wasn’t bouncing back and forth between a bunch of poisons. The tricky thing was to look for poisons that were meaningful in each time period.”

Among the murder cases she describes is the one that inspired novelist James M. Cain to write Double Indemnity. In 1915, Ruth May Brown married Albert Snyder. Ten years into this difficult marriage, she met Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman. They jumped into a torrid affair and plotted to insure and kill Albert. Ruth got a policy that paid double in the event of death by mishap. Gray purchased the necessary weapons. Then, on a designated night, the lovers bludgeoned Snyder with a five-pound sash weight, stuffed his nose and mouth with rags soaked in chloroform, and wrapped a picture frame wire around his throat. Staging the room to resemble a robbery/homicide, Gray then bound Ruth and left. Her daughter discovered her and called the police.

The investigating detectives thought the scene contradicted Ruth’s tale and when they discovered the blood-stained sash weight in the basement, Ruth broke down. She told them that Gray had killed her husband. Yet when Gray was arrested, he pointed the finger back at Ruth. Then he said he’d acted in self-defense when Albert had struggled with him.

Gettler soon established that both suspects had lied. First, he tested a bottle of whiskey removed from Gray upon his capture; it contained a lethal amount of bichloride of mercury. In addition, Gettler found that Snyder had been so drunk on bootleg alcohol, as well as treated to so much chloroform, he couldn’t have fought with anyone. These things alone would have killed him. Thus, Gray’s account of self-defense was a sham.

“Gettler pointed out,” says Blum, “that they had so effectively poisoned Snyder with chloroform and alcohol that, if they had just left it alone [without the bludgeoning], it would have looked like a natural death. They wouldn’t have gotten the double indemnity, but they probably would have walked.”

The botched homicide was so egregiously clumsy that the jury had no trouble finding both guilty. They were executed in the electric chair in Sing Sing on the same day, January 12, 1928.

The Poisoner’s Handbook is enthralling for any reader, but it’s especially valuable for how its meticulous details about Norris, Gettler, and their array of cases resurrect a nearly forgotten chapter of American forensic toxicology.

Katherine Ramsland

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2010 in Forensic History, Poisons & Drugs

 

“Wolfie” the Werewolf

“I would never kill a canine.”

“I am a canine.”

So says Wolfie Blackheart. I wish I had some clever words for this situation but I don’t. Just read this article and shake your head. Hopefully some of you who write horror, vampire, and/or werewolf stories can use this.

 
 

Virtual Turnpike: A Useful Tool For Writers

Maybe you have a scene in mind and you know it will take place at a little corner cafe in Florence, Italy. Or maybe in a warehouse in LA, or a a winding road in North Carolina, or a street in NYC. Details of the area will add character and depth to your scene but unless you live in the area you can’t just pack up and go there. I use Google Earth to explore neighborhoods and highways and everything else when doing story research. Now there’s a new kid on the block. Similar to Google Earth but in some ways better. Check out Virtual Turnpike. Pretty cool and it might help you craft that scene.

 
9 Comments

Posted by on February 6, 2010 in Writing

 

Botox and BioTerrorism

Botulism is the term used to describe poisoning from the toxin produced by a bacterium Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium is in the same family as the one that causes gas gangrene. It’s a nasty little devil. The botulinum organism grows in contaminated food and often appears in contaminated canned goods. The bacterium can grow inside the sealed can because they do not need oxygen to thrive. It is also found in contaminated wounds that are not treated properly or kept clean.

The toxin produced by these bacteria is one of the most deadly toxins known. A few drops could take out an entire room.  A single gram could kill 1000 people; an ounce could kill 30,000 people.

It is classified as a neurological toxin because it interferes with the transmission of signals throughout our nervous system. When exposed the victim will experience some combination of these symptoms: weakness, a staggering gait, paralysis, double vision (which comes from paralysis of the muscles that move and coordinate our eyeballs), abdominal cramping with associated nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath and finally the inability to breathe at all, difficulty swallowing or speaking, and a handful of other pleasant symptoms. Ultimately, the victim will stop breathing and die.

Treatment with an injectable botulinus antitoxin must occur quickly if the victim is to survive. The antitoxin binds with the toxin and makes it ineffective by preventing it from attacking the nerves. If not given fairly quickly, the individual will die from asphyxia as the muscles needed for breathing become paralyzed.

Now there are concerns that this might become a bioterrorism weapon. It is ideally suited for this since a very small amount placed in food or water or sprayed over a group of individuals could prove deadly to a large number of people in a very short period time. In its pure form it makes anthrax seem small potatoes.

There are legitimate medical uses for this toxin, beside cosmetic ones, but there are very few companies that manufacture it for these purposes. But recent reports indicate that several independent manufacturers around the world are also producing Botox and if they are able to produce this more dilute form, they might also be able to produce a purer form of the toxin. Since such small amounts are needed to produce mass casualties, this could pose a serious public risk as it could easily be smuggled across borders and even sent by the mail.

JAMA Article
New Scientist Article

Newser Article

Google Health Article

Wikipedia Article

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 2, 2010 in Asphyxia, Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs

 
 
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