The Science of Mysteries: An Overdose of Strychnine

One day on Twitter, some science bloggers who began life on the dark side, in the humanities, happily discovered a shared taste for classic mystery writers.  We thought we might write a series of posts, all on the same day, about the science in mystery books and so we did exactly that in December. And it was so much fun we decided to do it again.

My colleagues in crime, Jennifer Ouellette and Ann Finkbeiner, have looked to the great crime novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers, to explore other areas of science.  At her blog, The Last Word on Nothing, Ann writes about post-traumatic stress syndrome in the aftermath of World War I. And at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer takes another Sayer’s book as the starting point for a journey through the physics of music.

As for me, this time around, I found a combination of Agatha Christie and the terrifying toxicity of strychnine to be an irresistible combination…..

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Courtesy: National Library of Medicine


There is altogether too much strychnine about this case - The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie,  1920.

In the midst of World War I – or so the story goes – a young Englishwoman received a literary challenge from her sister. Could she write a mystery novel in which the true villain was impossible to guess?

The response to that challenge was a tale of strychnine and murder that launched one of the most successful careers in crime fiction. No exaggeration whatsoever:  the book was published, after several years of publisher hunting, in 1920; its title is The Mysterious Affair at Styles; its brilliant fictional detective is called Hercule Poirot and its author (30 years old at time of publication) is named Agatha Christie.

Christie would go on to write about 65 detective novels and some 14 short story collections (not to mention the occasional play) before her death in 1976. Over the years, sales of her books reportedly have reached close to four billion. But for purposes of this poison-obsessed blog, let us stipulate her dazzling success, her famed fictional characters, and even her famously intricate plotting techniques. Let us focus instead about another celebrated Christie characteristic: she also was obsessed with poisons.

They were her weapon of choice, so much so that a University of Texas pharmacology professor even wrote a book on the subject, titled The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie , a survey of the 30 odd poison murders in the mystery novelist’s 66 books. The poisons spanned such a range that the professor felt compelled, as one reviewer noted,  to include a 76-page alphabetical listing of all the toxic compounds – from strychnine to arsenic to thallium to taxine – and all the related chemistry in the Christie ouevre.

I’ve been reading Christie and admiring her devious plotting since I was a teenager given to raiding my mother’s prized collection of murder mysteries.  Her work and others from  the 1920s and 1930s, a era sometimes called the golden age of detective fiction, always fascinated me. The wickedness of the poisons, the cold calculation of the poisoners in the stories, all influenced my own non-fiction book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, which takes a narrative look at forensic toxicology in that same time period. In an earlier Science of Mysteries post, I paid tribute to another brilliant crime novelist of the time, Dorothy L. Sayers and her well-researched study in arsenic, Strong Poison.

But no crime novelist wrote about poison with such knowledge and enthusiasm as Christie, who once said: “Give me a decent bottle of poison and I’ll construct the perfect crime.” In fact, at the time that Christie began work on A Mysterious Affair at Styles, she had been working as a wartime nurse, had been employed in a hospital pharmacy ( then called a dispensary), and had studied for and passed  a test to become a member of the Society of Apothecaries.

So she began her career with a subject she knew well. And the plot of this first novel involves the strychnine poisoning of Emily Inglethorp,  a wealthy and dictatorial elderly woman living at Styles, a classic English country house. The soon-to-be victim is recently remarried to a mysteriously bearded and slightly smarmy younger man. The marriage has thrown into disarray the inheritance plans of her two step-sons who both also live in the house. Residents also include the exotically beautiful wife of the older son and the love interest of the younger, a nurse who happens  to work in a hospital dispensary, and assorted other suspects.

In fact, it’s very much a first novel,  a writer finding her style. Christie would grow into an author with a smooth style,  skilled in elegant misdirection. The Mysterious Affair at Styles has the misdirection without the elegance. It’s cluttered with quarrels, accusations, footprints, spies, cheating husbands, cheating wives and other misunderstandings among the red herrings litter the landscape. But in my particular version of fandom,  all can be forgiven in admiration of the precise (and elegant) chemistry that underlies the story.


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A Chemical-Free Note

During the past year, readers of this blog have, I hope, become accustomed to the occasional rant on the subject of the ridiculous phrase “chemical-free.” In fact, my first post of last year was a resolution that we give up the term entirely in favor of, um, reality.

Unfortunately, we haven’t quite accomplished that yet. But there are signs that people are listening. For instance, this year I was invited by the Los Angeles Times to write an opinion piece on the subject. It ran Sunday under the title Chemical Free Nonsense.

Which is, of course, exactly what it is. Off to a good start, readers. But expect to hear from me again on this topic because it matters. As I wrote in the Times piece:

“Let’s not fool ourselves either into thinking it’s just a harmless little slogan, this simple-minded equating of  “chemical” with “evil”, this invitation to chemophobia.  We read it a lot more often than we read up on the actual ingredients. It leaps off of bottles and jars and bakery windows. It’s a daily exposure, one  that can muddy our understanding of legitimate risks.”

Definitely worth a few more rants, don’t you think?

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Pet Poisoners, a postscript

In my post yesterday, The Pet Poisoner Next Door, I mentioned that I’d been driven to write about this because I see (thanks to Google Alerts) a story about someone’s pet being poisoned virtually every day.

I meant that literally. So here is the one that appeared just 24 later. It begins:

WHITESBORO, N.J. — Goo Boo, a two-year-old pit bull, died Jan. 9 after being poisoned. According to his owner, Duane Pitt, Goo Boo didn’t stand a chance.

“They put him to sleep today. They said there was nothing else they could do for him,” Pitt told the Herald.

Goo Boo, along with another dog, Cain, a mixed breed, had been fed drug-laced sausage tossed onto Pitt’s property.

I can’t tell you how sorry I was to see it.

The story overflowed with grief and bewilderment: They’re lovable dogs, the owner said of his dogs.  I don’t teach them to be mean. …My son loved that dog (Goo Boo). My son would hang on that dog’s back.

There’s an old saying about poison,  attributed to the 17th century British dramatist, John Fletcher. He called it poison, the coward’s weapon. It strikes me as remarkably apt in this case, doesn’t it you? Sneaking over to a neighbor’s yard and feeding a lethal treat to a friendly animal, a trusting one?

I can’t tell you much I wish this would just damn stop.

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The Pet Poisoner Next Door

“I want to know the best way to kill next door neighbors  cat, with out them suspecting anything. Its her closest pet and I need it to be gone. It kills bird and it comes in my back yard. Is there any way to poision it or dart it?

I copied the question above (typos and all) from a 2002 message thread on the revenge-obsessed website Bombshock titled “How to Kill a Cat.” You may wonder what brought me to this decade old discussion of killing small animals.  Why I’d want to be there at all. And why I continued perusing it through responses that ranged from the  practical – Antifreeze. Mix it with meat – to the rather, um, hostile -  The very best way is to give me your address. I can come to your house, and cut your fucking nuts off. Then, I will feed them to the cat & maybe it will choke and back to  – sugar and bleach, stirred into milk - the practical again.

I was looking for an answer to something that had been bothering, okay, haunting me for months: why do so many people poison their neighbor’s pets? Why? Why? “They’re very unhappy people,” my husband replied when I first raised the issue at home. “They’re assholes,” said my son. To tell you the truth, these both seemed like pretty charitable answers to me.  And I might have let it go at that if I hadn’t read another news article on the subject on the very next day, and the next, and the next again.

The problem, my problem in this case, is that I run daily Google alerts for poisoning events, a habit I developed while working my recent book, The Poisoner’s Handbook. I usually laugh when I tell people about it; yeah, I say, maybe it makes me sound a little twisted. But I sift through the alerts  for interesting stories and for patterns, repeated poisonous events. And over the last year, I started to develop an uneasy awareness that hardly a week passed without a pet poisoning story.  Hardly a day, in fact. Last year, I tallied up more than almost 300 stories (171 concerning dogs, 123 about cats). I briefly cited both that pattern and my reluctance to write about it in a post this fall called The Poisoner’s Calendar, which I mostly focused on the simpler subject of carbon monoxide.

But this year, the first dog poisoning story came on January 2, from a small town in western Canada.  It was followed on Saturday by a query to Canada’s Calgary Herald, a letter titled “What Kind of Twisted Person Would Poison a Dog?” Since this was pretty much my ongoing question, I hoped it would tell me. But the author had not answer. She was writing because her dogs had also been poisoned with strychnine and one was in critical condition: We also cannot imagine why anyone would want to put the dogs through so much suffering; it is a terrible thing to see.

So the stories nagged me, they bugged me, and the question kept following me.


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The Chemical Me (2011 edition)

In the last week, some of the best science bloggers in the country have put together lists of their favorite pieces done in 2011. My fellow PLoS blogger, John Rennie, has put together an astonishingly good compilation in a post on The Gleaming Retort.

In fact the complication is so good – not only John’s terrific work, but Jennifer Oullette, David Dobbs, Matthew Harper, Ed Yong, Ivan Oransky, Chris Mims…anyway, I spent so much time lost in reading their work that I suddenly realized that I had exactly one day (today) to pull together anything regarding my own brilliant efforts.

I’d like to start by reminding all that 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry.
Back in January, I suggested a New Year’s Resolution: ‘Let’s resolve to give up the ridiculous, the misleading, the this-is-simply-not-possible-so-just-let-it-go phrase “chemical-free”.’

Somehow, this idea has failed to catch fire (except among a few like-minded chemistry crusaders).  As I discovered during 2011, even Science magazine occasionally allows the chemical-free idea to seep into its news reporting.  As does The New York Times, which as I noted in this piece caused me to smack myself in the face with the newspaper.  That definitely showed them.

I have at least convinced my family that it’s ridiculous to call something chemical-free when everything on the entire planet, including ourselves, is created by chemicals. Of course, I may also have persuaded them that I’m a crank.

Recently, I was at a health food bakery with my younger son and, sure enough, painted on the window along with statements about sprouted wheat and unbleached flour was the phrase “chemical-free” products. I reached in my purse to whip out my phone and document the outrage.

“No, mom, no,” my son begged. “Can’t we just go in and buy the bread? Quietly?”

This is the same son who’s been studying the periodic table with me. I believe I called that post “Periodic Craziness.” I wrote it for every parent struggling to share academic enthusiasm but I also wrote it as a tribute to basic gorgeousness of the Period Table.

I’ve been a chemistry blogger for almost two years now. And as we live in a chemical word, that opens up a dizzyingly unlimited scope. So I’ve tended to focus on “chemistry and culture”, the way we navigate, alter, appreciate, and sometimes fear the intricately spun chemical web in which we live. Or sometimes just tried to illuminate the chemistry in news events. Probably the most high-profile post I wrote this year was done in response to the pepper-spraying of student protests at UC-Davis. Called  About Pepper Spray, it became a guest blog for Scientific American and was eventually picked up so many places that I ended up talking about it on the Rachel Maddow Show.

One of my personal blog favorites evolved unexpectedly from my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook. I’d told the story of a series of arsenic killings in 1922; the murderer was never caught. But the nephew of one of the victims wrote to me, saying that his aunt’s death had long been a family mystery and he was surprised and glad to find her in the book. With his permission, I told a longer story about Lillian Goetz, called A Lost Girl, Remembered. The poison, by the way, was arsenic. And in another favorite post, I wrote about the use of arsenic in a fictional murder story, Dorothy L. Sayer’s book, Strong Poison. That post, Instructions for A Deadly Dinner, was done a collaborative look at the science of murder mysteries, along with Ann Finkbeiner and Jennifer Ouellette.

We’re hoping to do it again in the year 2012.  Yes, another year of chemistry blogging, of poisons and politics and – yes, I resolve again to continue anyway on my chemical-free crusade. And if that becomes too frustrating, well there’s always the chemistry of cookies. That never fails to improve a year.

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The Science of Mysteries: Instructions for A Deadly Dinner

One day on Twitter, some science bloggers who began life on the dark side, in the humanities, happily discovered a shared taste for classic mystery writers.  We thought we might write a series of posts, all on the same day, about the science in mystery books and so …

You’ll find me here talking about toxicology, one of the great writers from the golden age of detective fiction, Dorothy L. Sayers, and her 1930 book Strong Poison. But you’ll also find Jennifer Ouellette exploring physics in Sayer’s masterpiece, The Nine Tailors, at Cocktail Party Physics and also in Jane Langton’s Dark Nantucket Noon for Discovery News. Not to mention Ann Finkbeiner at The Last Word on Nothing looking at geology, rivers and the great Josephine Tey’s book, To Love and Be Wise. It’s made for a great week of reading  very smart writers of the past and consulting with very smart writers today.

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When people ask why I would choose to write a book about poisons (The Poisoner’s Handbook) I usually start with my brief stint as a chemistry major, my continuing affection for using poisons as a way to think about our chemical planet. But I always end up admitting that – and, yes, this will make me sound a little twisted -  I’ve been thinking about poison murders since I was in high school.

That was when I started reading my way through my mother’s collection of early 20th century murder mysteries – Sayers, Agatha Christie,  Georgette Heyer, Mignon Eberhart, Patricia Wentworth – women who spun the most intricate plots around the most evil chemistry. Of these, only Christie is really famous today, more for her brilliant plotting and  quirky detectives like Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple than for her savvy toxicology. But she knew her chemistry; she’d worked as a nurse and in a hospital pharmacy.

In her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), the killers deftly use bromine to precipitate strychnine into the bottom of  victim’s tonic bottle, carefully timing that last lethal dose. It was this that caught my attention and imagination – the elegant use of a lethal substances, the way the peculiarities of a poison could literally carry a plot. A much later Christie novel, The Pale Horse (1961), uses the unnerving symptoms of  poisoning by thallium to produce both a puzzle and a ominous sense of disaster.

But none of these writers, I think, did more justice to that most famous of homicidal poisons, arsenic, than did Sayers in Strong Poison. The title comes from the lyrics of a 17th century ballad, The Poisoned Man: “O that was strong poison, my handsome young man/O yes, I am poisoned mother; make my bed soon/For I’m sick to the heart, and I fain wad lie down.”

But the chemistry is absolutely up-to-date for 1930, the year the book was published. In fact, Sayers for all her literary background (she was an Oxford University educated scholar of classical languages and considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work) performs as an outstandingly good science writer in the course of the story. Consider this description:

And presently, definitely, magically, a thin silver stain began to form in the tube where the flame impinged on it. Second by second it spread and darkened to a deep brownish-black ring with a shining metallic centre.

“Holy blank,” I said to myself. “She’s talking about the Marsh test.” I was at the moment rereading Strong Poison, and I was exactly 29 pages from the end but I put the book down so that I could run downstairs and inform my husband that Sayers really knew her arsenic.

I don’t know why I bother to tell him these things. He always looks so hunted.


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Dr. Oz and the Arsenic Thing (A Sequel)

Back in September, I wrote an, um, slightly cranky post about Dr. Mehmet Oz’s self-proclaimed expose of arsenic levels in commercially produced apple juice in the United States.

It was but one of many notes in a then ongoing chorus of crankiness. Most of the criticism focused on the point that his test results didn’t differentiate organic arsenic from inorganic arsenic, the latter being about 500 times more poisonous than the former.  Further the FDA had apparently unsuccessfully tried to educate him in this regard, as noted by coverage in places ranging from Forbes, (Dr. Oz Tries to be A Scientist) to Pharyngula (Dr. Oz Goes Too Far).

As I wrote at the time: “In a cranky, reluctant way, if you’re me, you have to kind of admire the way Dr. Oz responded to this concerted hiss of dismay. He continued to maintain that  arsenic exposure should always be considered a big, bad thing. And he managed to suggest that this big picture was more important than nitpicking whining about things like test accuracy and arsenic classification. He did this well enough that, for instance, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, asked the FDA to take another look at arsenic levels in apple juice.”

And what happened with another look? Prompted by the debate, Consumer Reports did its own study and in late November confirmed what Dr. Oz had found – that arsenic levels in apple juice were over all too high.  In fact, 25 percent of the samples tested had arsenic levels above the EPA limit for safe drinking water.  Further, it turned out that while criticizing Dr. Oz’s results, the FDA had failed to publicly release all of its own data, some of which also found uncomfortably high levels.

“Dr. Oz Vindicated” was the headline on a recent story in The Atlantic. Dr. Richard Besser, the medical and health editor of ABC News,  apologized for the earlier criticisms of Dr. Oz and pointedly complained about the FDA’s selective use of data. The FDA announced this week that it would expand its apple juice testing in response to the complaints.

So in this second look, Dr. Oz comes out sounding a lot better than the FDA.

Yes, I still think he would have been more effective if he’d been more meticulous in his testing methods.  Yes, I still wish he’d used the opportunity to educate his audience on the range of arsenic risks. There would have been less backwash and more focus on what may be a very legitimate concern.

But at least he reported his all his results, unlike the FDA which appears to have withheld evidence to strength its side of the argument.  Our government agencies do neither themselves not us any favors when they try to manage reality in this way, and agency’s behavior leaves it open to question to whether its primary concern is protecting consumers or corporations.

It’s not yet clear how much of a health risk exists here; all the levels reported are still relatively low. But it’s also true that arsenic is never a welcome food additive and that chronic exposure is linked to a host of illnesses.

In the end, Dr. Oz forced the government to reconsider the issue, to take a more serious look at arsenic contamination of juice drinks, which are primarily consumed by children. And for that, folks, he deserves a belated and non-cranky chorus of recognition.

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Periodic craziness

I’ve been helping my younger son study the Periodic Table of the Elements for a chemistry test. One of us is embarrassingly enthusiastic about this. “Po!” I announce. “Polonium! Now that was named by Marie Curie for her native Poland and…”

For some reason – can this really be my child? – he puts his head on the table. So later, while mulling over Pb (lead), I simply send him an e-mail informing him that the Pb came from the Latin word plumbum, which referred to a malleable metal. “Pb. Plumbum. Plumbing! Lead Pipes! See? It’s all connected!”

For some reason – could there have been a substitution at the hospital birth center? – he pretends he never received this missive. Over dinner, however, the conversation somehow shifts to the subject of REALLY DORKY parents who insist on telling their children WAY MORE than they want to know.

For some reason, this makes me laugh. He may have something here, the barest slightest possibility of a point. His mother IS a Period Table crazy, the kind of nut who looks at a son’s high school homework and starts admiring this wonderful structure, this table of contents for the book of life, this intricate, ornate doorway to the world around us.

The Periodic Table of the Elements resembles on first glance a stacked wall of square blocks, scribbled over with numbers and details as if a graffiti artist had spent a chemically improved afternoon here. Each block is marked with an element’s chemical symbol and that symbol surrounded by the kind of details that chemists see as essential – atomic weight, oxidation states, boiling point, melting point, electron configuration, density – and countless others see as strange and mysterious.

The symbol blocks are stacked top to bottom according to each element’s atomic number, which tells you the number of positively charged protons fizzing around in the nucleus. Hydrogen (H) has just one proton, for instance, floating it to the top of the chart. The unstable radioactive element plutonium (Pu) is packed with 94 protons, which drag it down to near bottom of the list.

“I know what kind of student you were,” he says darkly, and it’s clear he suspects that I spent my high school years lurking around the Bunsen burners, cleaning test tubes and wiping chemical crud off some kind of legally registered Dweeb glasses.

Of course, this makes me laugh some more and we have quite the little discussion about parents who don’t know when something is ACTUALLY FUNNY. And then – because he does have this quiz coming up, after all – we return to the wonders of the Table of Tables.

Other writers have done real justice to this subject, of course. There’s Sam Kean’s terrific 2010 book , The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. There’s Theo Gray’s absolutely gorgeous collection of photographs in The Elements. And from this year’s book list, there’s Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ elegant cultural history, Periodic Tables.

And always, always, Tom Lehrer‘s wonderful elements song”:

Perhaps I’m just not entertaining enough for my teenage audience. Or perhaps the problem is just that I’m his chemistry nut of a parent.  “Now look at this box right next to lead (Pb! Plumbing!)”, I say. “Tl, that’s thallium. Incredibly cool poison. Almost perfect if you wanted to kill someone. Except for one thing. Guess what that is?”

Silence. Minor eye roll. My son knows I’m going to tell him anyway. “It makes your hair fall out,” I explain. “Back in the 1930s, they used to put it into depilatory creams, you know, that women used to get rid of their mustaches and all. But pretty soon those women would be sick and then they’d go completely bald.”

“I’ll bet they looked like Coach _______.” This being a reference to a shiny-headed physical education teacher who, according to middle school sources, polished his head with bowling ball wax. “Really! When Coach shook his head people saw little chunks of wax falling onto the floor!”

There’s really no point as a parent in trying to dispute these school mythologies. Plus I don’t actually want to know about the chunks. “Well, I don’t think these poor women put bowling ball wax on their heads,” I say. “And anyway if we don’t focus on learning these elements, you won’t have time to do anything else.”

The periodic table is an attempt by scientists to impose order on the chemical dance of the elements, how they interact, bond together, and break apart, build life and destroy it. Someone like me – a science story teller rather than a scientist – sees it also as a story, our story, in fact. The scrawl of chemical graffiti also serves as a guide to our own history, to our chemical explorations of the world, to mistakes made, lessons learned.

“So Ra (number 88) is radium, right? And when it was discovered (pause to look this up, turns out to be 1898) people thought of it like a tiny, glowing sun that we’d dug out of the ground. They put it into health drinks and little candies and never even thought that swallowing something radioactive might be bad for you.”

“When did they figure it out?” he asks. This is a child of the atomic era, after all, and he’s been taught for years about plutonium, uranium (U, number 92), grown up in the shadow of the bomb, in our modern angst over radiation. “Were they just dumb?”

“They really didn’t know until they started using it in all these things and people started to die, really in the 1920s, so it took a couple decades. It takes us a while to figure these things out.” It’s the figuring out, the exploration, that tends to fascinate me and I’ve written about the rather scandalous history of radium on this blog and in my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook.

“No,” he declares. “They were just dumb.” I remind myself that at least his head isn’t on the table and that – since he maintains that he really is my child – all his annoying qualities are undoubtedly inherited from my husband rather than myself.

This thought cheers me up enough that I’m unfazed by his declaration that xenon (Xe, number 54) is the best element in the table due to its connection to the old sci-fi series, Xena the Warrior Princess, which is A LOT cooler than really dumb people poisoning themselves with radium.

He nods in triumph. And I nod back. I don’t smile; I don’t dance around the table congratulating myself on the fact that he’s learning the Periodic Table. I just continue onto the next element. And quietly polish my registered Dweeb glasses.

(Note: This is an updated (and, of course, much better version of an earlier post in honor of the International Year of Chemistry.)

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Fox News Food Products

In my recent post on the poisonous nature of pepper spray, I noted that the name makes it sound more innocuous than it really is. We’re talking, after all, about a chemical agent potent enough that our soldiers are banned by international treaty from using it in other countries:

But we’ve taken to calling it pepper spray, I think, because that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen. The description hints maybe at that eye-stinging effect that the cook occasionally experiences when making something like a jalapeno-based salsa, a little burn, nothing too serious.

As it turns out, this is exactly the message that Fox News is promoting to its views. And not subtly either. As Gawker reported, last night News co-hosts Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly mulled over the pepper-spraying of peacefully protesting students at UC-Davis this weekend. Why all the outrage, Kelly wondered. After all “pepper spray is a food product, essentially.”

On Twitter, this has launched some fairly hilarious suggestions from my fellow science writers for potential Fox News Food Products:

@carlzimmer: More Fox food products: ricin nerve gas from [castor] beans, cyanide from apple seeds. Happy Thankgiving!

@sethmnookin: Don’t forget bitter almonds.

Tongue-in-cheek queries about whether Fox was proffering useful household tips:

@hollychrome: So I should start cooking with pepper spray?

And a collection of #MegynKellyEssentially comments such as:

@droogie6655321: Guns are essentially long-distance paper hole punchers #MegynKellyEssentially

@drdryskull: Mustard gas is essentially a condiment #MeganKellyEssentially

But just in case anyone – among, say, the dedicated Fox News viewers, actually believes that we’re talking kitchen science here, let me repeat another point made in my earlier post. There is nothing, repeat nothing, domestic about the nature of pepper spray. On the Scoville scale, used to measure pepper burn intensity, police issue spray stands at 5.3 million units. For comparison, the blisteringly hot jabenero pepper is a mere 350,000 units. And to generate this kind of chemical intensity, you actually need a industrial laboratory process, essentially.

But if Fox is actually looking for some more “food products, essentially” for comparison, then, yes,  apple seeds and bitter almonds make a reasonable comparison. Oh and peach and apricot pits, which also contain cyanide.

All of which, by the sound of it, may be found in Megyn Kelly’s kitchen.

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About Pepper Spray

One hundred years ago, an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville developed a scale to measure the intensity of a pepper’s burn. The scale – as you can see on the widely used chart to the left – puts sweet bell peppers at the zero mark and the blistering habenero at up to 350,000 Scoville Units.

I checked the Scoville Scale for something else yesterday. I was looking for a way to measure the intensity of pepper spray, the kind that police have been using on Occupy protestors including this week’s shocking incident involving peacefully protesting students at the University of California-Davis.

As the chart makes clear, commercial grade pepper spray leaves even the most painful of natural peppers (the Himalayan ghost pepper) far behind. It’s listed at between 2 million and 5.3 million Scoville units. The lower number refers to the kind of pepper spray that you and I might be able to purchase for self-protective uses. And the higher number? It’s the kind of spray that police use, the super-high dose given in the orange-colored spray used at UC-Davis.

Photo courtesy: California Aggie

The reason pepper-spray ends up on the Scoville chart is that – you probably guessed this -  it’s literally derived from pepper chemistry, the compounds that make habaneros so much more formidable than the comparatively wimpy bells. Those compounds are called capsaicins and – in fact – pepper spray is more formally called Oleoresin Capsicum or OC Spray.

But we’ve taken to calling it pepper spray, I think, because that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen. The description hints maybe at that eye-stinging effect that the cook occasionally experiences when making something like a jalapeno-based salsa, a little burn, nothing too serious.

Until you look it up on the Scoville scale and remember, as toxicologists love to point out, that the dose makes the poison.  That we’re not talking about cookery but a potent blast of chemistry.  So that if OC spray is the U.S. police response of choice  – and certainly, it’s been used with dismaying enthusiasm during the Occupy protests nationwide, as documented in this excellent Atlantic roundup -  it may be time to demand a more serious look at the risks involved.


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