Can you imagine settling down to watch a movie with a bag of nachos and some cheese sauce, only for that particular snack decision to prove to be the worst choice you ever made of your soon-to-be-over life? That happened in May this year when a Californian man ate some cheese sauce that was infected with the (botch-i-linum) botulinum toxin. He later died, but not before suffering a few weeks of pain and confusion. The toxin, which is secreted by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, can appear in canned foods, and once you are struck by botulism the outlook isn’t good. This is just one of the deadly toxins that can strike us down in the prime of our lives. Today we are going to focus on the deadly toxins that inhabit the Earth:
Number 10. Lead
Lead is certainly not the worst thing out there, but lead poisoning is quite common. Researchers believe it’s how Beethoven died, and the World health Organization said in 2015 that lead paint alone causes almost 500,000 deaths a year. If exposed to lead paint, say on a toy, at low levels children can suffer permanent brain damage. At high levels the lead can attack the central nervous system leading to coma and death. This year an infant died in Connecticut after wearing, and reportedly chewing on, a handmade bracelet bought at an artisan fair. The beads on the bracelet contained high levels of lead.
Number 9. Tetrodotoxin
Death by dangerous dinner is a fact in Japan, and people sometimes die after eating a pufferfish known as the fugu. The fish, which is only prepared by licensed chefs, contains the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin. If ingested by humans it can cause respiratory failure, paralysis, and death. While the toxic parts of the fish should be removed, mishaps do happen. The Tokyo Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health has stated that over a period of time, it had a 6.8 percent fatality rate of those that ingested it. There is no known antidote, so you either wait until the toxins leave the body, or wait for death. The Guardian reports that “between 2006 and 2015, ten people died after eating the fish”, but most of those folks tried to prepare the meals themselves. In other Asian countries, people have died when the fish was passed off as something else. 15 people died in Thailand and scores more were hospitalized when vendors were selling the fish disguised as salmon around 2007.
Number 8. Arsenic
This popular poison won’t kill you in small amounts. Indeed, it was reported in 2017 that 2 million people in the USA were exposed to high levels of arsenic from drawing water from wells. Back in the Victorian era, women poisoned themselves by rubbing a mixture on their faces that contained arsenic, all in the name of beauty and the desire to have a pale complexion. Arsenic poisoning leads to cancer in developing countries as we speak, but a small dose of this harmless looking powder in your drink will kill you. That’s why it was a favorite with murderers in 19th century England. Vomiting and diarrhea will occur, and if you’ve consumed enough of it, you’ve usually got between two hours and two days before it’s game over.
Number 7. Strychnine
Strychnine is another substance found in many things we might consume. It’s mainly found in the strychnos nux-vomica tree, and from there it might make its way into a one gram bag of cocaine, pesticides, or even contaminated food and water. If you’ve been poisoned, you’ll know within 15 to 60 minutes. According to the CDC, you’ll become anxious, feel muscle pain, have spasms, and at high doses, suffer respiratory failure and brain death. If you can get past 12 hours, you should survive. The BBC reported in 2016, a man was found dead in the middle of the English Moors after ingesting it.
Number 6. Cyanide
Scientists say that cyanide and strychnine are fairly similar in terms of toxicity, but cyanide certainly has the worse reputation. This chemical compound can be found in plants, bacteria, fungi as well as the seeds of some fruits. Death-by-apple-seed, however, would only occur if you ate at least 150 crushed apple seeds and chewed them all well. If you did manage to do that, you could suffer seizures, apnea, cardiac arrest, and death within seconds. In 2012, a U.S. man, a former millionaire Wall Street banker, died in about 37 seconds after swallowing a cyanide pill in court. It was short, but looked rather unpleasant.
Number 5. Sarin
Sarin is a nerve gas that was developed in Germany as a pesticide. It later became a chemical weapon and was developed by the Soviet Union and the U.S. military. It has killed thousands of people as a military weapon and was the cause of 12 deaths in the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack. 26 times more deadly than cyanide, if ingested, your eyes will first water, you’ll throw up, pee, poop, and then have seizures. Within ten minutes, you will be dead.
Number 4. Ricin
This deadly protein, extracted from the innocent sounding castor bean, once found its way to President Barack Obama’s mail. One of the problems, for most of us at least, is that the toxin can be extracted from the pulp without much difficulty. You just need to follow some fairly simple instructions thanks to our modern Oracle, Google. If inhaled or ingested at an amount half the size of a grain of sand, it is goodnight Vienna. The good news is, it’s unlikely you’ll be poisoned if someone isn’t planning to kill you as it’s not something you just come across – unless you worked in the U.S. military in the 1940s. If ingested, the effects will appear after about 10 hours. You’ll experience vomiting and diarrhea, seizures, and death will likely happen when your liver, spleen and kidneys stop working.
Number 3. Mercury
Mercury occurs naturally in air, water and soil, but it gets very dangerous when it builds up in fish and becomes methylmercury. That’s how humans are usually affected. It’s also found in metals and so it can get into us that way. It’s high on the list, because a very small amount of mercury can be deadly. If it isn’t, it’s been known to lead to children’s hair and teeth just falling out like in a bad dream. It kills, too, as a British scientist’s family discovered in 1996. She had taken all the correct safety precautions when working with the substance, but after spilling two small drops on her gloves she was doomed. She didn’t think much of it, having worn the protective gloves, but within weeks she suffered neurological impairment. She then went into a coma and died. While the woman was thrashing about prior to her coma, her friend asked a doctor if she was in pain. The doctor told her that her brain wouldn’t even register pain.
Number 2. Batrachotoxin
The strongest form of this toxin is carried by the golden poison frog, known as the most poisonous animal on the planet. Also known as the golden dart frog, it carries about one milligram of poison, enough to kill ten to twenty humans. This would mean the tiny, friendly looking frog could take out an elephant. It’s called the dart frog because residents of Colombia’s rainforests would soak the end of their darts in its poison for hunting, or protecting themselves. Like in the movies, a human, if hit, would likely drop like a knocked out boxer. A lethal dose is 0.00012 grams. There isn’t much evidence as to the effect on humans, but when natives were asked about the killer darts, they told western scientists that paralysis is so immediate, birds would just fall from the sky when hit.
Number 1. Botulinum toxin
This nasty toxin’s claim to fame is that it is used to make older looking people look younger when used in what we know as Botox. The toxin, 40 million times stronger than cyanide, can kill a human at only 80 nanograms – 2-billionths of a gram. Your face will first paralyze, then your limbs, and then your breathing organs. Unfortunately, as we heard at the beginning of this show, it can appear in cans of food. Although botulism outbreaks are very rare, the cheese sauce fan from California was joined by another northern Californian a few months later. This time the cheese sauce killed a woman, who had initially been released from the hospital after recovering. It’s odorless and colorless, so you’ll only know you are a victim when strange things start to happen to you. When your face starts paralyzing and you can’t speak, drive as fast as you can to a hospital.
Which of these substances seems like the worst to you? Let us know in the comments!