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Category Archives: Poisons & Drugs

Beware: Health Food Can Kill You

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Aconite, also known as monkshood or wolfsbane, is beautiful and looks harmless. Not true. It’s a deadly poison. When ingested, it has potentially deadly cardiotoxic and neurotoxic effects. Its most often kills through the generation of deadly changes in the cardiac rhythm. Victims suffer shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, numbness and tingling of the face and other body parts, nausea, and ultimately paralysis, cardiac arrest, and sudden death. Pleasant, huh?

Aconite is easily available, not only at your local nursery but also at various health food stores where it comes in many varieties, including herbal teas. Several recent poisonings related to an aconite-containing herbal tea sold by a San Francisco company show how dangerous this chemical can be. Of course, other health food stores sell aconite and you can easily buy it on the Internet.

I always tell my patients that the second most dangerous place on earth, after a aircraft carrier deck during flight operations, is a health food store. Though most of the products they sell are mostly harmless, and mostly not helpful, some are downright deadly. Many years ago there was a Ma Huang crisis in that several people died from taking supplements laced with this material. Ma Huang is basically an amphetamine and, like aconite can cause deadly cardiac arrhythmias as well as a marked elevation of blood pressure and strokes.

The point is, none of these are regulated. The FDA, for all its warts, does indeed protect consumers. It’s very difficult to create, test, and bring a new drug to market. It cost billions and takes many years, sometimes more than a decade. The FDA requires strict proof that the medicine actually does what it’s designed to do and that its side effects and toxic potential are acceptable and well understood. This is not the case in products you buy at your local health food store. Many are mixed up by a guy named Joe in his garage in a cat box. Trust me, Joe is not a chemist, or a pharmacist, and he possesses no medical training. He might not even have a GED. But he can mix up some cool stuff and put it in fancy packaging and make it look real. And safe. And it might be. But of course, it might not.

The take-home message here is that do not accept the packaging, the product description, or its prime location at eye level on the display rack. Do your research. Find out what’s really inside and what its toxic potential is. And do not buy anything from a guy named Joe.

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The Queen of Poisons and The Marsh Test

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Arsenic has, over the centuries, garnered many colorful names. It was called the “queen of poisons” because it was so readily available, easy to use, highly effective, and untraceable. Thus, it was used by many famous historical poisoners. Some called it the “king of poisons” but since over the years,  female killers have favored poisons, “queen” seems more apt. It was also called “inheritance powder,” for obvious reasons—-once the estate holder is dead and gone, the heirs can party down.

Arsenic is the nearly perfect poison. This was definitely true centuries ago when there was no way to trace it. But what about today, with modern toxicological techniques? Unfortunately, arsenic is still a pretty good choice for the poisoner. It’s not often looked for in unexplained deaths and its effects mimic many medical conditions, particularly neurological and gastrointestinal.

Back a couple of centuries ago, because of its common use, a method for finding arsenic in the dead or ill became an imperative. There were many steps along this path. This search for arsenic was essentially the beginning of forensic toxicology.

From HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS

Arsenic had been a common poison for centuries, but there was no way to prove that arsenic was the culprit in a suspicious death. Scientists had to isolate and then identify arsenic trioxide—the most common toxic form of arsenic— in the human body before arsenic poisoning became a provable cause of death. The steps that led to a reliable test for arsenic are indicative of how many toxicological procedures developed.

1775: Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) showed that chlorine water would convert arsenic into arsenic acid. He then added metallic zinc and heated the mixture to release arsine gas. When this gas contacted a cold vessel, arsenic would collect on the vessel’s surface.

1787: Johann Metzger (1739–1805) showed that if arsenic were heated with char- coal, a shiny, black “arsenic mirror” would form on the charcoal’s surface.

1806: Valentine Rose discovered that arsenic could be uncovered in the human body. If the stomach contents of victims of arsenic poisoning are treated with potassium carbonate, calcium oxide, and nitric acid, arsenic trioxide results. This could then be tested and confirmed by Metzger’s test.

1813: French chemist Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (1787–1853) devel- oped a method for isolating arsenic from dog tissues. He also published the first toxicological text, Traité des poisons (Treatise on Poison), which helped establish toxicology as a true science.

1821: Sevillas used similar techniques to find arsenic in the stomach and urine of individuals who had been poisoned. This is marked as the beginning of the field of forensic toxicology.

1836: Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806–1880) developed the first test for arsenic in human tissue. He taught chemistry at Grey’s Medical School in England and is credited with establishing the field of forensic toxicology as a medical specialty.

1836: James Marsh (1794–1846) developed an easier and more sensitive version of Metzger’s original test, in which the “arsenic mirror” was collected on a plate of glass or porcelain. The Marsh test became the standard, and its principles were the basis of the more modern method known as the Reinsch test, which we will look at later in this chapter.

As you can see, each step in developing a useful testing procedure for arsenic stands on what discoveries came before. That’s the way science works. Step by step, investigators use what others have discovered to discover even more.

I ran across an excellent article on the Marsh Test and it’s definitely worth a read. I can imagine when this was performed in the courtroom it did elicit a few gasps.

A few useful links:

http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/howdunnit-forensics.html

http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/marsh-test-arsenic-poisoning

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sandra-hempel-/arsenic-the-nearperfect-m_b_4398140.html

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/arsenic/history.html

 

Howdunnit Forensics Cover

 

Chemical Assassinations: A Sordid History

Using chemicals for murder is not a new concept. It’s been around for many centuries. Socrates was killed with hemlock, and arsenic became so popular that it was known as “inheritance powder,” for obvious reasons. Chemicals have also been used in political assassinations.

Recently Kim Yong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was apparently assassinated using Sarin. It seems that a pair of young ladies had the toxin on their hands and made contact with the victim, transferring the toxin, causing his death. The details of exactly how they pulled this off are unclear. One of the big questions is how did they avoid poisoning themselves? The first thought of course is that they wore latex surgical gloves or something similar but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The second thing that came to my mind is that maybe they placed a barrier such as petroleum jelly on their hands before applying the Sarin or VX but this doesn’t appear to be the case either – – and this would be a risky move. Many have speculated that they took the antidote for this poison ahead of time. This makes sense and is definitely possible.

Sarin and VX are organophosphates similar to many insecticides. They are also classified as anti-cholinesterases in that they bind with the enzyme cholinesterase and block its actions. Cholinesterase is essential for nerve transmission throughout the human body. It’s complex biochemistry but in the end this chemical causes widespread derangements in normal bodily functions.

The symptoms that result are numerous and include chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, nasal congestion, constricted pupils, nausea, anxiety, seizures, and ultimately death. The treatment for Sarin exposure is to employ chemicals that counteract or override this derangement. The most common ones are atropine, Pralidoxime, and lastly the sedative and anti-seizure drug diazepam.

It is entirely possible that the young ladies involved in this assassination had pretreated themselves with atropine and possibly Pralidoxime. In fact the US military has such antidotes prepackaged in an autoinjector that is known as Mark I NAAK – –NAAK stands for Nerve Agent Antidote Kit. This is the most likely explanation for how they pulled this off.

Political assassinations using chemicals are not new. In 2006 Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium 210 that had apparently been placed in his iced tea.

Litvinenko

Dioxin was the culprit in the damage to Viktor Yushchenko.

Yushchenko

Perhaps the most famous chemical assassination took place in 1978 when Georgi Markov was jabbed in the leg with a point of an umbrella. At first it seemed to be an accident, no big deal, a mere pin prick, but Markov’s health quickly declined and he ultimately died. It was later found that a tiny pellet containing ricin had been injected into his leg, supposedly by the KGB.

Markov and Pellet

Deadly chemicals have been around for many millennia and have been used many times to bring about the death of others, political or otherwise.

 

Q&A with Expanded Audio Discussions Now on the Suspense Magazine Website

Q&A with Expanded Audio Discussions Now on the Suspense Magazine Website

Check out the new posts John Raab of Suspense Magazine and I put together. Read the Q&As and listen to the expanded discussions. Hope each proves helpful for your crime fiction.

Can DNA Be Used To Identify Multiple Assailants In a Three Decade Old Rape?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2016/12/20/d-p-lyles-forensic-file-episode-1/

In 1863, Could An Autopsy Accurately Determine the Cause of Death?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2017/01/09/in-1863-could-an-autopsy-accurately-determine-the-cause-of-death-d-p-lyle-answers-this/

Can My Female Character Cause Her Pregnancy To Become “Stone Baby” By Shear Will?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2016/12/31/can-my-female-character-cause-her-pregnancy-to-become-stone-baby-by-sheer-will/

More to come.

Want more cool questions from crime writers? Check out my three Q&A books.

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More Info and List of Included Questions

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More Info and List of Included Questions

 

Q&A: Will a Decaying Corpse Actually Produce Alcohol?

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Q: Is it possible or likely for blood alcohol levels to increase or decrease in a decomposing body, and if so during what stages of decomposition?

A: Alcohol is usually consumed in the decay process but may actually be produced and this might cloud any toxicological examinations on the corpse. Make it look as if the victim consumed more alcohol than he actually did.

I must point out that alcohol is not commonly produced but it does happen in rare cases. The alcohol is a byproduct of the action of some types of bacteria that are involved in the decay process. This means that alcohol can only appear during active decay. What is that time period? A little about putrefaction.

The decomposition of the human body involves two distinct processes: autolysis and putrefaction. Autolysis is basically a process of self-digestion. After death, the enzymes within the body’s cells begin the chemical breakdown of the cells and tissues. As with most chemical reactions the process is hastened by heat and slowed by cold. Putrefaction is the bacterially mediated destruction of the body’s tissues. It is this decay that might cause some alcohol formation. Not always, but sometimes. The responsible bacteria mostly come for the intestinal tract of the deceased, though environmental bacteria and yeasts contribute in many situations. Bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments and become sluggish in colder climes. Freezing will stop their activities completely. A frozen body will not undergo putrefaction until it thaws.

Under normal temperate conditions, putrefaction follows a known sequence. During the first 24 hours, the abdomen takes on a greenish discoloration, which spreads to the neck, shoulders, and head. Bloating follows. This is due to the accumulation of gas, a byproduct of the action of bacteria, within the body’s cavities and skin. This swelling begins in the face where the features swell and the eyes and tongue protrude. The skin will then begin to “marble.” This is a web-like pattern of the blood vessels over the face, chest, abdomen, and extremities. This pattern is green-black in color and is due to the reaction of the blood’s hemoglobin with hydrogen sulfide. As gasses continue to accumulate, the abdomen swells and the skin begins to blister. Soon, skin and hair slippage occur and the fingernails begin to slough off. By this stage, the body has taken on a greenish-black color. The fluids of decomposition (purge fluid) will begin to drain from nose and mouth. This may look like bleeding from trauma, but is due to extensive breakdown of the body’s tissues.

The rate at which this process occurs is almost never “normal” because conditions surrounding the body are almost never “normal.” Both environmental and internal body conditions alter this process greatly. Obesity, excess clothing, a hot and humid environment, and the presence of sepsis may speed this process so that 24 hours appear like 5 or 6 days have passed. Sepsis is particularly destructive to the body. Not only would the body temperature be higher at death, but also the septic process would have spread bacteria throughout the body. In this case, the decay process would begin quickly and in a widespread fashion. A septic body that is dead for only a few hours may appear as if it has been dead for several days.

As opposed to the above situations, a thin, unclothed corpse lying on a cold surface with a cool breeze would follow a much slower decomposition process. Very cold climes may slow the process so much that even after several months, the body appears as if it has been dead only a day or two. Freezing will protect the body from putrefaction if the body is frozen before the process begins. Once putrefaction sets in, even freezing the body may not prevent its eventual decay. If frozen quickly enough, the body may be preserved for years.

So, whether a particular corpse actually produces alcohol or not is totally unpredictable. How long it takes depends upon the conditions the corpse is exposed to. In a corpse in an enclosed garage in Houston in August, this process will be very rapid and the corpse will be severely decayed after 48 hours. If parked in a snow bank in Minnesota in February it might not even begin the decay process until April or May when the spring thaw occurs. And anything in between. The appearance of any alcohol would coincide with the time frame of the bacterial activity.

So how does the ME get around this possibility? How can he determine the actual alcohol level that was present prior to the decay process kicking in? He can’t with any absolute accuracy, but he does have a tool that will help him make a best guess. He can extract the vitreous humor from the victim’s eye—this is the jelly-like fluid that fills the eyeballs. The alcohol level within this fluid matches that of the blood with about a two-hour delay. That is, the level within the vitreous at any given time reflects the blood alcohol level that was present approximately two hours earlier. And the vitreous is slow to decay so it might be intact even though the corpse is severely decayed. By measuring the vitreous level the ME will know the blood alcohol level two hours prior to death and he can then estimate the blood alcohol level at the time of death.

 

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This question originally appeared in MORE FORENSICS AND FICTION

http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/more-forensics-and-fiction.html

 

The Kiss of Death: Beware a PBJ Sandwich

Anaphylaxis can kill you. And do so very quickly and unexpectedly.

Our immune system protects us every minute of every day by attacking microscopic creatures that could do us harm. Things such as viruses, bacteria, and other invaders. When a foreign organism enters our body, the immune system recognizes it and immediately goes to work building antibodies against it. These antibodies attach to the foreign organism and attract various blood cells to it. Mostly the various types of White Blood Cells (WBCs) we all have. The cells then damage and devour the invader. That’s a good thing.

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But sometimes this protective system goes haywire. It over-reacts. It creates substances that lead to an acute asthmatic attack, a diffuse rash, a swelling of the face and hands and feet and other body parts, and a dramatic, and often deadly, drop in blood pressure. We call such an overwhelming reaction  anaphylactic shock.

The treatment for anaphylaxis is the immediate injection of epinephrine, antihistamines, and steroids. These either block the allergic reaction itself or mitigate the body’s reaction to it. But time is critical. These measures must be taken very quickly. This is why many people who have serious allergies carry small epinephrine injectors such as EpiPen.

Someone who is allergic to things such as bee stings, peanuts, certain foods or plants, or some medications can suffer such a reaction even if exposed to very small quantities of the allergen. A little dab can set off a major reaction.

Case in point: Myriam Ducre-Lemay.

Myriam was allergic to peanuts. She avoided them like the plague. But one evening, her boyfriend kissed her after he had eaten peanut butter and this set off an anaphylactic reaction that took her life.

peanut-butter

Mayo Clinic Article: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anaphylaxis/basics/definition/con-20014324

Wikipedia Article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaphylaxis

 

FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES Release Day

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Forensics For Dummies Updated 2nd Edition is now available.

Get it through your local Indie Bookstore or here:

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Forensics-Dummies-Douglas-P-Lyle/dp/1119181658

B&N: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/forensics-for-dummies-douglas-p-lyle/1013991421

 
 
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