The three deadliest poisons you never, ever want to ingest

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You have about the same chance of becoming shark food as being offed with poison — yet we continue to be fascinated with murderous molecules and the people who wield them.

Blame the intrigue on Russian spies and Munchausen murder mysteries, but the reality is that only 49 people were intentionally poisoned in 2019, according to the CDC, accounting for less than 1% of homicides. 

Poisoners celebrated their heyday in the 19th century when it was easier to get away with — but today, with better detection, murderers have mostly moved on.  Still, when it happens, it isn’t pretty.

A new book, “A Taste for Poison” (St. Martin’s Press), out now, by scientist and biophysics professor Neil Bradbury, outlines 11 poisons, how they work, and some of the most notorious criminals who deployed them. Here, we’ve featured the three of the most commonly used substances in homicides.

arsenic
Shutterstock / Ed Isaacs

Arsenic

“Arsenic holds the record of having the longest and most disreputable pedigree as a poison,” writes Bradbury.

In the 19th century, arsenic accounted for a third of all poisonings, partially because it was so easy to come by, as it was prized for its green pigment and used in everything from wallpaper to children’s toys.

Arsenic holds a special place in a poisoner’s heart because of the sociopathic ability to use small amounts over time to mimic natural illness, like cholera, influenza and even food poisoning. At lower doses, vomiting and stomach cramps occur. Over time, arsenic disrupts the cells’ ability to transport energy, rendering even basic cellular function impossible. As symptoms escalate, nerve damage sets in, leading to organ failure and death.  

Treatment is possible (it involves being hospitalized and hydrated with various fluids). It should be noted that arsenic exists in the Earth’s crust, and sometimes makes its way into our groundwater (making digging wells very dangerous). We even injected our chickens with arsenic to make them appear plumper and pinker until the practice ended in 2013, thanks to evidence that even tiny amounts of arsenic can cause cancer and other health problems.

cyanide
Shutterstock / MATHILDE.LR

Cyanide

Bradbury refers to cyanide as “notorious” thanks to its starring role in spy thrillers. It was also the grisly method of murder in German death camps.

Like arsenic, cyanide found its way into people’s homes thanks to its brilliant synthetic blue hue. But what made it such a perfect poison is its near flavorlessness and its potency. Only 1/500th of a teaspoon can kill an adult.

Cyanide works by sticking to the hemoglobin in our red blood cells, causing mass devastation to a cell’s ability to create energy in the body. Its effects are similar to arsenic, but cyanide works much faster, immediately harming the heart. A crushing headache and nausea are the first symptoms, followed soon after by unconsciousness and coma until the heart stops.

There are antidotes, but speed is essential — as 95% of accidental ingestions are fatal.

strychnine

Strychnine

Strychnine, or “the most insidious” poison, was beloved by Agatha Christie and deployed by Norman Bates on his mother in the movie “Psycho.”

A plant alkaloid like caffeine, the substance began as a rat killer used in merchant vessels. But as word spread about the rapidity and viciousness of death, murderers took note.

 “Strychnine tortures its victims by racking their body with excruciating spasms, before allowing death to rescue them from an earthly hell,” writes Bradbury.  

Taste For Poison

“Strychnine tortures its victims by racking their body with excruciating spasms, before allowing death to rescue them from an earthly hell,” writes Bradbury.  

A few minutes after exposure, the muscle twitches start and then turn into waves of three- to four-minute spasms. The facial muscles tighten into a “sardonic grin” and the back muscles, which are stronger than the abdomen, tighten, causing the victim to contort into an arched U-shape, balancing on the top of their heads and the heels. Death only comes when the diaphragm refuses to contract.

Victims are fully aware of their inability to breathe — and, most terribly, the strychnine actually heightens the sensation of every inhale and exhale.

There’s no antidote, just drugs like muscle relaxants and Valium to quell the spasms, but unless administered right away, there’s very little that can be done.

Come to think of it, a shark attack doesn’t sound so bad right now, does it?

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