Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bad Poisons & Good Venoms

I’ve been researching poisons for my work in progress. I’ve learned too much about the ways to poison someone. There have been a lot of surprises. A few of the more interesting things I found are below.

Nutmeg was highly prized in the Middle Ages and was widely traded. In Elizabethan England, it was believed that nutmeg could ward off the plague. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch dominated the nutmeg trade after nearly decimating the natives of the Bamda Islands, the world’s only source of nutmeg at the time, and then kept the location of the islands secret. In Connecticut (the Nutmeg State), traders whittled wooden nutmeg seeds resulting in the term “wooden nutmeg” coming to mean a fraud. As much as it was valued, however, the seeds of the Nutmeg tree while not deadly are toxic if injected intravenously. If ingested, the seeds can cause nutmeg psychosis.

The Gila Monster is the only venomous amphibian native to the US. If you are bitten by a Gila Monster, a 20-inch reptile, while visiting the American southwest, you will immediately be in severe pain at the bite site and you can die from respiratory arrest. Adding insult to injury, literally, the reptile is tenacious and may have to be cut off. Luckily, the Gila Monster will not attack unless provoked. Interestingly, the venom from the Gila Monster promotes the release of insulin. An injectable synthetic version of a protein found in the amphibian’s saliva has been developed to treat Type Two diabetes.

A species of the pit viper, Pygmy rattlesnakes are found in the southeastern US. They normally range in length from 16 to 24 inches. Because of its size, it is unlikely that a Pygmy rattlesnake can cause death in a human adult although it can adversely affect an adult for several days. A US drug company has used a protein found in the snake’s venom to prevent blood platelets from sticking together.

A cone snail is a predatory sea snail. It harpoons its victims and the larger varieties can cause death in humans. The paralyzing toxin injected by the cone snail is used as an ingredient in a drug used to relieve severe chronic pain.

There are hundreds of other interesting poisons. Choosing one for my book has been difficult because there are so many options. Of course, I also have the option of creating my own poison since my mystery is set two hundred years in the future. You gotta love writing futuristic books.

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