The danger of shiny things

The brighter and shinier your inexpensive plastic and vinyl accessories are, the more likely they are to be contaminated with high levels of lead. Read the rest

Polonium-210: A pretty good way to horribly murder somebody

Last week, a Swiss investigation found evidence to support the idea that Yasser Arafat was poisoned with polonium-210 — a radioactive element that's safe to carry around in a container, but causes unstoppable death if swallowed. NPR sat down with Deborah Blum, a science writer who specializes in the chemistry of poisonings, to talk about what makes polonium-210 a particularly handy way to off somebody and why it's so hard to bring a polonium poisoner to justice. Read the rest

8 foods that aren't as frightening as Buzzfeed thinks they are

An actual chemist looks at claims made about "toxic foods" in a recent Buzzfeed linkbait post and calmly explains why the whole thing is ridiculous. Of the 8 foods (actually, mostly food additives) mentioned, one is hardly used anymore, another was withdrawn from the market two years ago, two only sound scary if you failed chemistry, and four have had their risks vastly overstated. It's the sort of situation where some studies show a risk, some studies don't, and there's good reasons to think the risk — if it exists — isn't that big, to begin with. Read the rest

Elvis impersonator arrested in Obama ricin letter case

Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, an Elvis impersonator, was arrested wednesday and charged with mailing ricin-tainted letters to President Barack Obama and other politicians. Update: Fox reports that investigators think he may have been framed. Read the rest

"Looney gas" and lead poisoning

Last week, Mother Jones published a really fascinating article arguing that the crime wave that swept through America between the 1960s and 1980s can largely be blamed on leaded gasoline — and the subsequent lead poisoning of an entire generation of Americans. For more background on the dangers of leaded gas, I suggest reading this post by Deborah Blum. Essentially, it's an excerpt from her fantastic book, The Poisoner's Handbook. In it, she tells the story of the history of leaded gas — a substance that was known to be dangerous even in the 1920s — and the conspiracy to sweep that danger under the rug. Read the rest

Leaded gasoline and the 20th-century crime wave

Scientists are amassing evidence that suggests exposure to tetraethyl lead — the additive once used in almost all the gasoline sold in the United States — could account for the dramatic increase in crime that happened in this country between the 1960s and 1980s. As leaded gasoline was phased out, they say, children were exposed to less lead, leading to the decline in crime that began to really kick in in the 1990s.

This is the same curve of crime statistics that economist Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, attributed to the legalization of abortion. Levitt's theory was that, after Roe v. Wade, there were fewer unwanted babies born into dire circumstances and, thus, fewer people to grow up on the path to criminal behavior. Levitt matched the rise in abortion rates to the decrease in crime, but frankly, there are a lot of things that you can correlate to the decrease in crime.

What makes the lead theory interesting is that correlations match not just at the national level, but at regional, and even neighborhood levels. Increases in lead relate to increases in crime — usually a couple of decades later. Likewise decreases in lead relate to later decreases in crime. What's more the same correlations exist in countries all over the world. Meanwhile, we know that lead has big impacts on growing bodies — it affects brain function, it's linked to hyperactivity, difficulty managing aggression, and lowered IQ.

Correlation isn't causation. But in this case they definitely seem to be winking suggestively at one another. Read the rest

Following a chain of unexplained deaths in Thailand

Over the past few years, multiple people have died in Thailand from what appears to be exposure to some kind of poison. Most of these people have been tourists. And most of them have been young women. The deaths have happened in clusters. Five or so on the island vacation hotspot of Kho Phi Phi. Another group of six at Chiang Mai's Downtown Inn.

Lots of possible explanations have been suggested — ranging from serial killers, to hallucinogenic beach drinks, to overuse of banned insecticides in hotel rooms. But, so far, none of the specific poisons proposed as the culprit totally makes sense in relation to the deaths. And, to make things worse, it seems like Thai authorities are doing their best to make it difficult to actually investigate what has happened in individual cases, and figure out whether the cases are linked or not. At this point, it's hard to even know whether all the people who have died exhibited the same symptoms.

Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has done a lot of reporting on poisons and true crime has been following this story and just published another piece on the still-unfolding mess.

Your daughter died.

Your daughter died thousands of miles from home. In a hotel where no one came to help. In a hospital where she struggled to keep breathing and just couldn’t. In a room where her heart – and somehow you still don’t really believe this – just stuttered to a stop. In a country, where authorities have failed for months, years even, to tell you how or why your daughter died.

Read the rest

The chilling history behind a museum's disembodied uterus

To be fair, there are really only a few ways that London's Hunterian Museum would end up with the uterus of a young woman floating in a jar. Given that the museum is home to surgical specimens, many of which were collected in the days before surgery involved anesthesia, it's easy to guess that the story behind the uterus is not a pretty one.

But at The Chiurgeon's Apprentice blog, we learn that the story is even more grisly than you might have suspected. In fact, it belonged to a woman who committed suicide by drinking arsenic in 1792. She was, at the time, a month or so pregnant. Medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris writes about the autopsy:

In his [autopsy] report, Ogle remarked that her stomach contained ‘a greenish fluid, with a curdy substance…an effect produced by the arsenic’. He also noted that there was ‘an uncommon quantity of blood in the vessels of the ovaria and Fallopian tubes’ and that it was ‘evident, from this circumstance, that conception had taken place’.Nevertheless, when told that the date of her last period had only been ‘a little more than a month before her death’, Ogle began to question whether Mary had been pregnant when she died.

Curious to know the truth, Ogle removed the ‘organs of generation’ and gave them over to the famous anatomist, John Hunter, whose interest in pregnant cadavers was well known. Hunter injected the arteries and smaller vessels of the uterus with a wax-like substance so that ‘the whole surface became extremely red’.

Read the rest

Poison, forensics, and how science protects us

Last month, I read Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook , a really fascinating book about poison and murder in the early decades of the 20th century. Primarily, Blum looks at the development of forensic science and how the New York City coroner's office transitioned from being a place to stash political flunkies to being a scientific and effective player in crime solving. But there's another theme to the book as well—without science, there are many crimes that go not just unpunished, but completely unnoticed.

And this isn't just about women offing their husbands or villains chloroforming unsuspecting strangers. As the coroner's office developed standards of research and became an entity that served justice, the people who worked there became increasingly aware of the ways that the powerful profited off poisoning average workers and consumers. From government agents intentionally lacing alcohol with deadly adulterants during Prohibition, to factory owners knowingly exposing their workers to dangerous chemicals, Blum's book is full of examples of public corruption that was only brought to light because coroners took the time to apply the scientific method to investigating and cataloging deaths.

Some of these stories are ones I'd heard before, but had no idea the role that coroners and forensics had played in exposing the crime and providing evidence that ensured the people harmed received justice. For instance, Blum has a couple of posts on her blog right now about tetraethyl lead—the lead in "leaded" gasoline. This additive fixed an obnoxious mechanical problem in car engines, but at the price of sending factory workers to their deaths in straight jackets. Read the rest