How to be properly poisoned (Part #3)
To round out our series of essays on what to do if you are poisoned, we thought we would provide brief descriptions of a variety of other poisons sometimes (albeit very rarely) used by poisoners; their effects; and their antidotes.
Here is the first article in the series.
And here is the second article in the series.
Also read our article about basilic dysentery which can be both an illness and a (Russian) toxin. It makes you sit on the lavatory all day. Only the Russians could conceive of using such a thing as a toxin.
In all cases our advice is to seek the immediate emergency attention of an expert toxicologist. But there may not always be one of those close at hand. So this is a second best guide if one is absent.
An odourless colourless / white tasteless crystal that can be dissolved in water or alcohol or sprinkled on food like sugar.
Upon ingestion it will release hydrogen cyanide, that impedes the cells in the body from using oxygen. Also Hydrogen Cyanide is a weak acid so it may be a painful way to die. Resist an instruction to carry a cyanide suicide pill!
Almost always lethal, even in the tiniest quantities. Death should follow in a few minutes.
Making potassium cyanide is very dangerous without large amounts of protective equipment and it is rarely made for this reason. Thankfully your would-be poisoner cannot acquire any of this substance in a usable form, as a general rule.
There is a very effective antidote to cyanide poisoning, but it's just a question of whether you have any in range. The antidote is blue paint, the colourant within binds with the hydrogen cyanide molecules so as to prevent them from interfering with the body's capacity to use oxygen. (Blue colouring is produced by an Iron Fe (II) salt which is the formal antidote.) Even if it's an oil based paint, if it's blue, just start drinking it: as much as you can before you start physically vomiting. Yum yum. People who do this generally survive.
The main problem with using potassium cyanide as a toxin is that administering the poison is likely to kill the poisoner too, unless they take ludicrous precautions inconsistent with an illicit administration of a toxin.
2,5-dimethoxy-4- n -propylphenethylamine
(Known as '2CP')
Some crazy people call this a recreational narcotic but it is not. It is a deadly toxin even in quite small doses. It causes cardiac arrest and general organ failure.
It is a white / colourless tasteless odourless crystal that is also soluble in water / alcohol.
In less than immediately lethal doses, 2CP is a potent hallucinogen and depressive, meaning that you will have hallucinations about negative things such as killing yourself, meeting the devil, having all your worst nightmares fulfilled, and so on. You may suffer major loss of motor skills, being unable to stand up; you may suffer reverse peristalsis, if you ingested the substance orally; you may become incapable of speech and scream incoherently.
The antidote is 2mg alprazolam, which should act as a kill switch even for a lethal dosage. If immediate release from symptoms is not observed, follow with another immediate 3mg alprazolam. Do not overstep 5mg alprazolam total (save for a person with alprazolam addiction), as it may be fatal in itself.
This is the most deadly toxin for humans known to mankind. It is both a classic heavy metal toxin, attaching itself to blood cells around the body; and its radioactive emissions will kill you.
The toxin works slowly, taking about 2-3 weeks to kill. In the interim you will become decreasingly debelitated. There is no known antidote.
However this is probably one toxin you don't need to worry about:
The only place where it is believed to be manufactured is a Russian military nuclear research laboratory. It can only be made in the context of a controlled nuclear explosion. Very little of it actually seems to be produced.
Only one person is known ever to have been poisoned with this toxin. His name was Alexander Litvinienko, and he was a Russian triple-agent assassinated it appears by a GRU unit in a hotel bar in central London who put it in his tea when he went to the bathroom.
What emerged from that single example is that the poisoner can be tracked everywhere they have been with the poison, that leaves a highly distinctive radioactive trace absolutely everywhere it goes. So a poisoner using this poison (which would have to be authorised by the President of Russia) is going to be discovered and identified.
Under new airport security regulations, a poisoner may be stopped at airport security for emitting a radioactive substance of this nature. In such circumstances the poisoner can expect not to be let out of prison - ever.
The toxin may also be hazardous to the medium- to long-term health of the poisoner who carries the poison, due to the radioactive emissions in his proximity; and that in itself may result in his death.
Dom't worry too much about Polonium. Unless Vladimir Putin personally wants to murder you, you are not at risk. And even if he does, he will probably use another toxin. This one is appallingly messy.
This is a generic term for a series of nerve agents developed in Russian military chemical weapons laboratories, contrary to all international conventions on such things, in the 1980's. They work by blocking the operation of neurotransmitters, thereby causing the bodily organs to cease to function. There are lots of different types but they mostly all boil down to the same thing:
Colourless, odourless liquids typically applied with a small brush or a rag to a surface.
They do not need to be ingested to take effect. Merely touching the skin, or inhaling their fumes, is enough.
For this reason they are pretty dangerous to the poisoner, who needs ideally to wear latex gloves and a face mask while appying the toxin.
It appears from the only known Novichok poisoning in history, that of the Skripal family (Russian double agents in England) and some incidental passers-by, that these nerve agents degrade rapidly once applied and left to the open air. After just a few hours they become increasingly ineffective.
Their maximum effects are within a few hours of victim contact.
On the other hand, exposure to such a toxin just after application may well be lethal and there is no known antidote except intensive care (which may or may not succeed).
The fact thay these nerve agents have only ever been used once suggests that the Russian assassinatory authorites (i.e. Vladimir Putin) consider them more trouble than they are worth.
If you think poisoning by rare Russian military grade nerve agent is a real risk, get some latex gloves and a face mask and keep them on (and frequently replace them) in everything you do.
Again, this is not really one to worry about. If you are poisoned this way, you will at least become very famous (as if you are poisoned with Polonium). At the very least there will be a footnote in the history books about you.
Ricin is a biochemically fascinating substance, that merits much study. A lot is known about it. As a potential victim of ricin poisoning, you however only need to know a few things.
It is very easy to make, as it is present in castor beans that can be easily purchased as a vegetable.
It works by inhibiting protein synthesis.
It is only generally lethal if injected intravenously. For that reason it is very seldom used. A Bulgarian dissident called Georgiy Markov was killed with ricin using a sharpened umbrella point in London with a spring-loaded ricin capsule in the tip, which was used to stab the victim's leg while he was talking a walk over a London bridge. This little exercise was undertaken by the Soviets in 1978. This is about the only known case of successful ricin poisoning. Purchase of umbrellas of this nature is probably impossible now - no such umbrellas exist. This was a total one-off. Another Bulgarian dissident was poisoned in London in the same way in 1978, but he survived.
Even if you just inhale ricin dust or ingest ricin orally, you should still seek immediate medical attention.
Ricin kills in three to five days.
Modern antidotes exist (under military seal but they are available); a victim will generally also survive through inpatient supportive hospital care.
As long as you don't go around letting Russian doctors inject you with things, the prospects of a ricin poisoning are pretty unlikely.
This is essentially concentrated tetanus, the disease one can contract through exposure of infected soil, dust and manure etcetera to one's blood system. It works as a nerve agent, inhibiting the operation of neurotransmitters so the body's organs stop functioning. The actual mechanism of action of the toxin is fascinating, complex and not fully understood. However all you need to know is the following:
Only the Russians are known to make this. It is never used in practice, for reasons that will become obvious.
It requires intravenous injection, so stay away from those Russian doctors.
It takes a few days to kill.
The best defence is immunisation. Everyone should have received a tetanus vaccination these days. This will probably be sufficient for it not to kill you.
Until the use of Polonium, botulinum was thought to be the most deadly toxin in the world.
Botulinum, which is a concentrated version of the botulism bacterium (itself often lethal even without concentration into a toxin), prevents the operation of the neurotransmitters at the neuromuscular junction, making all your limbs (and everything else such as facial muscles) go floppy.
Botulism itself is associated in particular with badly canned foods in countries with low standards of commercial food preparation. The botulism grows and concentrates in the anaerobic respiration environment of the sealed can, and poisons the consumer of the canned food. Stay away from canned foods in countries with low hygiene standards. Boiling will kill botulism.
The median lethal dose is tiny if administered intravenously, slightly higher if inhaled and more substantial if ingested. Nevertheless 1mg in one's food is typically a fatal dose.
There are all sorts of proper and sensible uses of botulinum, including Botox injections to remove wrinkles and the treatment of cerebral palsy. However we are interested here only in the totally improper use of this substance - which is manufactured commercially for all sorts of medical or quasi-medical uses - as a toxin.
The essential points when used as a toxin are:
Symptoms develop over several days and death may take a week or two, so you have time to obtain medical help - if you know you are infected. The main problem is that it's symptoms are so like lots of other things.
If you suspect you have botulism, you need a confirmation of diagnosis as soon as possible - an only an experienced toxicologist or specialist in tropical medicines will be able to give you that.
Once diagnosed, the antidote is a mixture of atropine and pralidoxome, that stimulate neurotramsmitters in ways that botulism inhibits. You cannot possibly take these very specialist pharmaceutical substances that tinker with your neurological system without in-patient oversight by an expert neurologist that your toxicologist will refer you to. You will be in hospital for several days to be cured of botulism. You may die anyway, but with a bit of luck not.
Botulism is a scourge, and because it is manufactured commercially in principle it is available to the poisoner. All we can recommend is immediate self-referral to an expert toxicologist. (Forget regular doctors who will not have a clue unless they live in areas where botulism is common) and go directly to the toxicologist with a full explanation of your concerns.
Botulism poisoning is (very) rare not only because botulinum is very heavily regulated in its acquisition (even specialist doctors can only buy microscopic non-lethal quantities with a special licence and full patient records) but also because botulinum is very dangerous to any agent who passes it along the chain to the poisoner, including the poisoner himself.
Botulism is generally only dealt with in specialist hermetically sealed laboratories. For this reason many countries do not produce it or administer it as a medicine: they don't have the specialist facilities to keep the manufacturers safe. Denatured Botox is purchased from abroad for cosmetic purposes.
Hence botulinum shares the flaw of potassium cyanide that it is too dangerous to administer without potentially lethal self-harm. For this reason it is rarely used as a poison. Hence it is not available. Even the Russians don't want to kill their own poisoners.
This is a Russian speciality: manufacturing influenza viruses to poison people. It is a sub-lethal toxin; even the most virulent strains of influenza seldom kill unless the victim is likely to die anyway or has an auto-immune disease.
There are various problems with it:
The laboratories that manufacture it need all sorts of special security facilities to prevent the staff from being poisoned. You need a specialist virological institute to make it.
Influenza denatures quickly. In all likelihood the poisoner is using a phial or denatured influenza toxin that he or she doesn't even realise is well past its shelf life.
Moreover influenza denatures approximately linearly, so every day counts.
A fit and healthy person with a strong immune system may not even catch it, or may shake it off as a light head cold.
Everyone else gets poisoned in the vicinity and catches influenza, including without doubt the poisoner. So it is not exactly targeted in its approach.
Treatment is the same as catching any other sort of influenza: plentiful Vitamin C; aspirin for any temperature, and get some rest. You will be fine within a couple of days.
Influenza is not a toxin used by serious people. It's far too haphazard. However that doesn't mean there are not various Russian agents out there armed with their influenza phials and not realising how useless it is (except to give everyone in a bar or restaurant a cold).
The careful reader will have observed something common to the majority of poisons listed above: they are manufactured and predominantly used by the Russians. That is because the Russian government has always liked poisoning people, for some historical or cultural reason we are unable to make sense of.
Poisoning is a form of assassination attempt used by Russians against their highest-ranking traitors. (Contrary to popular belief, Russians seem never to assassinate non-Russians outside Russia, even if they are formidably working against Russian interests, unless they have cause to feel that there has been treachery.) This sort of thing is pretty rare, and ceteris paribus it is unlikely to happen to you.
But it is always best to be prepared.