9 horrible poisons

Some things are difficult to take in moderation. They're just too small!

Original photo [Depositphotos]

If you drink more than sev­en liters of wa­ter, you can die of hy­pona­trem­ia – a lack of salt in the or­gan­ism. It’s a good thing that peo­ple don’t drink this much wa­ter very of­ten. But there are many sub­stances with a fa­tal dose that is much less than 7 liters. We have made a list of the nine most ter­ri­ble of them.


Cyanide is the usu­al ab­bre­vi­at­ed name for potas­si­um cyanide – a potas­si­um salt of hy­dro­cyan­ic acid. The chem­i­cal for­mu­la of potas­si­um cyanide is KCN. It re­sem­bles gran­u­lat­ed sug­ar and dis­solves in wa­ter just as well as sug­ar does. Hy­dro­gen cyanide, which is re­leased in the re­ac­tion of cyanide and wa­ter, smells like bit­ter al­monds to some peo­ple, while to oth­ers it has no smell.

Cyanide is high­ly tox­ic. A small pinch of it (140 mg) can be fa­tal for hu­mans. When it en­ters the blood, it bonds with fer­ric iron and blocks cy­tochrome – an en­zyme re­quired for the cells to breathe. The cells lose the abil­i­ty to ab­sorb oxy­gen from the blood, and the or­gan­ism per­ish­es from oxy­gen star­va­tion. Es­sen­tial­ly, the per­son dies from suf­fo­ca­tion, not phys­i­cal­ly, but chem­i­cal­ly, from the in­side

Sugar looks like cyanide [Depositphotos]


Sarin was dis­cov­ered in 1938 in Ger­many by two sci­en­tists who were try­ing to cre­ate more pow­er­ful pes­ti­cides. As you can prob­a­bly guess, soon the for­mu­la of the sub­stance was sent to the chem­i­cal weapons sec­tion of the Ger­man army, which or­dered the mass pro­duc­tion of sarin for mil­i­tary needs. Sarin is a col­or­less liq­uid which has a ner­vous-par­a­lyt­ic ef­fect and stuns in any form it is tak­en in, es­pe­cial­ly quick­ly when in­haled. Its fa­tal con­cen­tra­tion in in­hala­tion is 2 min­utes – 35 mil­ligrams per 1 cu­bic me­ter.

Sarin be­came wide­ly known af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tack by the Aum Shin­roy­ki sect in the Tokyo sub­way in 1995. From 5000 to 6300 peo­ple were poi­soned with vary­ing de­grees of se­ri­ous­ness in the sarin at­tack.

Two years lat­er, a UN con­ven­tion came into force which pro­hib­it­ed the man­u­fac­ture and stock­pil­ing of many chem­i­cal weapons, in­clud­ing sarin.


Sub­way sta­tion


Un­til the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, mer­cury was wide­ly used in medicine. To­day it is hard­ly used at all, which is quite un­der­stand­able. Metal­lic mer­cury it­self is less harm­ful, but it grad­u­al­ly evap­o­rates even at room tem­per­a­ture, and its dan­ger­ous bonds have the prop­er­ty of ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in the body. One of the symp­toms of mer­cury poi­son­ing is se­vere men­tal dis­or­ders. Do you re­mem­ber the Mad Hat­ter from “Al­ice in Won­der­land”? Lewis Car­roll did not just make him up. Hat­ters like this re­al­ly did ex­ist in the past. The felt that hats were made of was treat­ed with mer­cury com­pounds. Mer­cury grad­u­al­ly ac­cu­mu­lat­ed in the hat­ter’s body, and hat­ters fre­quent­ly went mad.


The Hat­ter from the 'Al­ice in Won­der­land' movie


Am­a­tox­ins are con­tained in sev­er­al types of mush­room of the Amani­ta species (Amani­ta phal­loloides, Amani­ta vi­rosa, spring Amani­ta). When they en­ter the body, am­a­tox­ins de­stroy the cells of the liv­er and kid­neys, They block the func­tion­ing of RNA-poly­merase II. This is re­spon­si­ble for the syn­the­sis of sev­er­al types of RNA, in­clud­ing mes­sen­ger RNA, with­out which cel­lu­lar me­tab­o­lism stops and the cell breaks down. Poi­son­ing takes place quite slow­ly. But even if poi­son­ing does not lead to death, it does se­ri­ous dam­age to the in­ter­nal or­gans.

Amanita phalloloides [Depositphotos]


Strych­nine is an al­ka­loid which was first ex­tract­ed from the beans of the trop­i­cal Strych­nos ig­natii tree in 1818. This al­ka­loid was also found in nux vom­i­ca – the seeds of the de­cid­u­ous tree of this genus. This ex­plained the tox­ic prop­er­ties of these nuts, which were al­ready known in an­cient In­dia.

By its pop­u­lar­i­ty strych­nine can com­pete with cyanide, which writ­ers and screen­writ­ers are also very fond of us­ing to poi­son their char­ac­ters. At the same time, strych­nine ni­trate is used in medicine. It as­sists the trans­fer of sig­nals be­tween neu­rons, and thus has a “stim­u­lat­ing” ef­fect. But in large quan­ti­ties strych­nine caus­es se­vere poi­son­ing and a painful death in con­vul­sions.

Nux vomica [Wikimedia]


On the 7th of Sep­tem­ber 1774, Cap­tain James Cook wrote in his ship’s di­ary that his crew had eat­en a lo­cal trop­i­cal fish, and fed the ship’s pigs with the left­overs. The crew ex­pe­ri­enced feel­ings of numb­ness and suf­fo­ca­tion, and all the pigs were found dead the next day.

The poi­son­ing was caused by tetrodotox­in, which is con­tained in some blow­fish. This is the poi­son that caus­es fa­tal­i­ties from eat­ing the fugu fish. It is also con­tained in the roe and skin of some crea­tures which live in trop­i­cal wa­ters.

Tetrodotox­in acts on the nerve fibers. The form of the mol­e­cule en­ables it to block the ion chan­nels like a cork. As a re­sult, the ner­vous fibers lose the abil­i­ty to con­duct im­puls­es. Doc­tors are not al­ways able to save peo­ple who have been poi­soned by tetrodotox­in. But fugu dish­es con­tin­ue to be pop­u­lar nev­er­the­less.

Fugu fish [Depositphotos]


This nerve gas was in­vent­ed in the UK in the 1950s. Its in­ven­tors were try­ing to de­vel­op a new pes­ti­cide, but its high tox­i­c­i­ty meant that it did not find an ap­pli­ca­tion in agri­cul­ture. But it did in­ter­est the mil­i­tary. In 1959 VX was test­ed on vol­un­teers in the Amer­i­can army. Af­ter it al­most killed one of them, Doc­tor Sim, sci­en­tists as­cer­tained the max­i­mum per­mis­si­ble dose of VX for in­tra­venous in­jec­tion – 2.12 mg/kg. In 1993, this poi­son was pro­hib­it­ed by the UN con­ven­tion.

A doll in a gas mask [Depositphotos]


Ricin is much more poi­sonous than potas­si­um cyanide. Dos­es of ricin the size of a match­head are suf­fi­cient to kill an adult hu­man be­ing. Ricin is made from cas­tor beans, the fruit of the cas­tor-oil plant (Rici­nus com­mu­nis), which grows in the trop­ics and sub­trop­ics all over the world. The poi­son is con­tained in the oil­cake that re­mains af­ter the cas­tor oil is ex­tract­ed. In­ci­den­tal­ly, traces of ricin are also con­tained in the oil it­self. In 2013, the ac­tress Shan­non Richard­son, who played a mi­nor role in “The Walk­ing Dead”, was ar­rest­ed for at­tempt­ing to send the US Pres­i­dent and oth­er high-rank­ing of­fi­cials let­ters laced with ricin.

Castor beans and oil [Depositphotos]

Bo­tulinum tox­in

Of all the poi­sons we know to­day, the most poi­sonous is bo­tulinum tox­in. A fa­tal dose for a hu­man be­ing is 1.3 nanograms per kilo­gram of weight. It is pro­duced by bac­te­ria of a cer­tain kind, which de­vel­op in anaer­o­bic con­di­tions (with­out air) in tins or sausage. Home-made sausage is rare to­day, but once it was the main source of bot­u­lism. Even the name of the dis­ease and its ac­ti­va­tor came from the Latin word bo­tu­lus – “sausage”. The bacil­lus not only se­cretes a tox­in, but also gas­es. So you shouldn’t open tins that are in­flat­ed with air. Bo­tulinum tox­in is a neu­ro­tox­in of pro­tein ori­gin. It at­tacks the nerve cells, which send im­puls­es to the mus­cles. The mus­cles stop con­tract­ing, and paral­y­sis sets in. But if you take the tox­in in a low con­cen­tra­tion and only ap­ply it to cer­tain mus­cles, the or­gan­ism as a whole does not suf­fer, and the fibers be­come re­laxed. So the poi­son acts as medicine in mus­cle spasms. And also, re­laxed face mus­cles don’t let the skin wrin­kle. You’re fa­mil­iar with the word “botox”, aren’t you? That’s the one.

Homemade sausage [Depositphotos]

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