Uncovering the cause of the largest mass poisoning in history

Twenty-one children died in India yesterday after eating school lunch food that had been contaminated with insecticide. Authorities are still investigating what happened there, but the Generation Anthropocene podcast has a related episode I wanted to point you towards in the meantime. It's about the struggle to understand the causes behind the largest mass poisoning in history, which began in Bangladesh in the 1980s and is still happening. The 25-minute podcast covers the work of the epidemiologists, doctors, and geologists who figured out that the skin lesions and organ damage affecting millions of Bangladeshis were caused by arsenic ... and then uncovered where all that arsenic was coming from.

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  1. We do ban them, and fairly hard: a fair few of the CWC-scheduled chemical warfare agents, especially the nerve gasses, are also recognized as formidable insecticides(and close cousins of slightly feebler compounds that remain legal, and probably don't kill farmers faster than they kill bugs); but are too dangerous to humans to be legally used for the purpose. In at least one case(Amiton) a compound even managed to be sold commercially, for use as an insecticide; before sheer product unsafety prevailed and it ended up being scheduled as a warfare agent(VG).

    (It's less likely in this case, given the relative availability of pesticides and aircraft lubricants in rural India, and the rapid onset and severity of symptoms; but there are other avenues for contamination: tricresyl phosphate is all sorts of useful as an engine lubricant, flame retardant, and plasticiser; but it's also enthusiastically neurotoxic and is both lipid soluble and without distinctive color, odor, taste, or texture. It gave the US the 'Jake Leg Blues' during prohibition, poisoned around 10,000 Moroccans around 1960, and continues to crop up now and again all over the world, generally in the context of allegedly edible oils with either incompetence or fraud in the supply chain.)

  2. Everyone knows the largest mass poisoning in history was the Jonestown Massacre.

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