People have used poisons throughout history for a variety of purposes: to hunt animals for food, to treat diseases and to achieve nefarious ends like murder and assassination.
But what is a poison? Do all poisons act in the same way? Does the amount of the poison matter in terms of its toxicity?
I am a toxicologist who studies how chemicals affect human health, particularly when they cause harmful effects. As a fan of mystery and detective stories, which often feature the use of poisons, I’ve noticed a few poisons that turn up repeatedly in books, television and movies. How they really work is as fascinating as how they’re deployed toward evil ends in fiction.
What is a poison?
The 16th-century physician–alchemist Paracelsus, considered to be the father of toxicology, once wrote: “What is there that is not poison? All things are poison and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.” By this adage, any substance can be a poison with the appropriate amount.
Many people intentionally expose themselves to chemicals like ethanol through alcoholic beverages, nicotine through tobacco products and botulinum toxin through botox treatments at relatively low doses and suffer minimal adverse effects. However, at sufficiently high doses, these chemicals can be lethal. The body’s response often depends on how the chemical interacts with receptors within or on the surface of cells, or how it binds to enzymes used for biological processes. Frequently, higher concentrations of the substance lead to stronger responses.
Despite Paracelsus’ dictum, in popular culture the term “poison” is often reserved for chemical compounds that are not normally encountered in daily life and can lead to detrimental health effects even in relatively small amounts.
Novel writers and television and movie screenwriters have exploited numerous poisons in their works, including those that are chemical elements, such as arsenic and polonium, and those derived from animals, such as snake venom and blowfish poison. Many poisons derived from plants have also been used for villainous purposes in fiction.
In the AMC TV series “Breaking Bad,” high school chemistry teacher Walter White uses a compound called ricin to murder the business executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. Ricin is a very potent poison derived from the castor bean Ricinus communis and can be especially lethal if inhaled. Once this compound gets inside a cell, it damages a structure called a ribosome that’s responsible for synthesizing proteins essential to the cell’s function. Ingesting ricin could result in intestinal bleeding, organ damage and death.
It wasn’t Stevia that Lydia sweetened her tea with in ‘Breaking Bad’.
Sometimes, particular organs are much more susceptible to the effects of a poison. Physicians use digitalis medicines like digoxin, which are derived from members of the foxglove family of plants, to treat congestive heart failure and heart rhythm problems. When administered in sufficiently high doses, however, they can lead to heart failure and death. By interfering with a protein in heart cells called the sodium-potassium pump, they can decrease the rate of electrical impulses in the heart and increase the strength of its contractions. This can result in a dangerous type of irregular heartbeat called ventricular fibrillation and lead to death.
The villain of the James Bond film “Casino Royale,” Le Chiffre, has his girlfriend attempt to kill Bond by poisoning his martini with digitalis. At high doses, digitalis drugs can alter the activity of the autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious bodily functions like heart pumping.
Poison is one way to win a poker game.
TV characters are not immune to the dangers of poisonous mushrooms. One particularly potent fungus, Amanita verna, is known as the “destroying angel.” In the ITV TV series “Midsomer Murders,” puppet show owner and presumed upstanding citizen Evelyn Pope uses this mushroom to fatally poison chef Tristan Goodfellow as part of her murder spree of the inheritors of an estate. This mushroom contains various chemicals called amatoxins that are thought to inhibit the activity of a specific enzyme critical for the production of messenger RNA, or mRNA, a molecule essential to protein synthesis in cells. Because ingested amatoxins mainly target the liver, these poisons can severely disrupt the liver’s ability to repair itself, leading to loss of function that will prove fatal without liver transplantation.
They don’t call it the “destroying angel” for nothing.
Another highly popular poison in detective and mystery stories is strychnine. In the Agatha Christie story “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” Alfred Inglethorp and his lover Evelyn Howard use this poison to kill Inglethorp’s wife and wealthy country manor owner, Emily Inglethorp.
Strychnine, which comes from seeds of the Strychnos nux-vomica tree, affects the nervous system by blocking a neurotransmitter called glycine in the spinal cord and brainstem. Normally, glycine slows down the activity of neurons and prevents muscle contractions. By blocking glycine, strychnine ingestion can result in excessive activation of neurons and muscles, leading to a series of full-body muscle spasms that can become so intense that they cause respiratory arrest and death.
Many more poisons exist in nature than described here. Aside from potentially enhancing the enjoyment of detective and mystery stories, understanding the mechanisms of how these poisons work can provide an added appreciation for the complexity of the effects foreign chemicals have on the human body.
President Joe Biden and other Democrats have no appetite for getting mixed up in the potential prosecution of Donald Trump.
The ex-president apparently expects to be indicted in Manhattan on charges related to a hush-money scheme involving porn actress Stormy Daniels, but the current president and Democratic lawmakers aren't eager to discuss the Manhattan case or Republican efforts to push back.
“I expect the president and his team will not go anywhere near this anytime soon,” Josh Schwerin, a former top strategist at the Democratic outside group Priorities USA, told The Daily Beast. “Trump wants to make this a political argument and not a legal argument; having the president and his team weigh in helps him do that."
The White House has declined to comment on what it described as an ongoing investigation, and Democratic lawmakers are trying to strike a balance between criticizing Trump's actions while lamenting the potential consequences as unfortunate.
“It’s always bad to be indicted -- I’m an old-fashioned girl,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) told Politico. “I don’t feel a need to run around waving a flag of triumph because I think it’s a terrible thing.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) wrote off Trump as a "crook," while Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said "it's about time" he faced consequences for one of the laws she believes he'd broken, but red-state Democrats were a bit more measured in their reaction to the former president's possible indictment.
“There’s many reasons not to support Donald Trump," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). "There’s many reasons why Donald Trump should not be president again in the United States, but you should not allow the court system to be perceived as basically a political pawn.”
Biden and Trump appear headed toward a rematch in next year's presidential election, and as much as the president might want to stay above the fray if his opponent gets indicted in New York, Georgia or in federal court, the criminal charges will eventually become a campaign issue -- especially once the ex-president is booked.
“The mugshot might be there," said Schwerin, the Democratic strategist. "You might see a series of news clips of Donald Trump getting arrested, that could happen at some point. But that’s different than litigating the facts of the case.”
Joe Tacopina, the lawyer for former President Donald Trump now embroiled in conflict of interest allegations for his prior connections to adult film star Stormy Daniels, was roasted on CNN Wednesday by legal analyst Jennifer Rodgers.
"I want to get to this Joe Tacopina thing that we have been talking about, because it could be a game changer when it comes to representation and so forth," said anchor Don Lemon. "I'm going to play what he said back in 2018 and what he's saying."
He then proceeded to show contrasting clips of the Trump attorney's past and recent statements.
"I mean, you know once that net is out, once the microscope is on, everything is fair game and it's hard to argue, oh, you can't look at this or you can't look at that," said Tacopina in a 2018 clip, from around the time Daniels sought to hire him for her case against Trump. "So yes, if there's an issue with that payment, the Stormy Daniels, being that it was made on behalf of the candidate, okay, and it was not declared, that's fair game, that a lawyer took out a home equity loan with his own money, paid somebody that he didn't even know on behalf of a client who, by the way, had the wherewithal the money to afford $130,000, and, by the way, didn't tell the client about the settlement agreement. It's an illegal agreement, as to fraud, if that's in fact, the case. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't pass the straight face test. And quite frankly, if that is what happened, we have a potential campaign finance issue."
This was contrasted with a clip of Tacopina from this month, defending Trump as his client as he faces indictment over the Daniels payment: "Does anyone actually believe — anyone, left, right, middle, whatever — that if someone else were accused of paying hush money to avoid a public sex scandal in the manner that Donald Trump is alleged to have, um, avoided the public sex scandal, they would be prosecuted? The answer is 100 percent no."
"Okay so you have the Stormy Daniels — the current possibility of piercing attorney-client privilege. Let's set that to the side," said Lemon. "He is now representing Donald Trump. Back then he was making, it appears — correct me if I'm wrong — the complete opposite argument of what he's making today."
"So this is why people make jokes about lawyers, right?" said Rodgers. "Lawyers are advocates. They're not fact witnesses, so he's representing one client. Now he's going to put forward that position back in the day. He was maybe not representing Stormy Daniels, but was kind of talking about what her side of things would be. So you know, he's not a fact witness, like, it's okay to take a different position or put a different position out in the press. The real question is, did he represent her? What did he learn from her? And does that mean that he now cannot represent Donald Trump? And, you know, the judge will will sort all that out."
"Usually in these cases, they don't actually disqualify the person," Rodgers added. "Courts do like to honor a criminal defendant's choice of council. So probably they will say, you can't use anything you learned, you can't cross examine her. If this goes to trial, but they'll probably let him stay on the case."