poisons – The Ubiquitous Kind

hangmansbagRecently I’ve been enjoying the writing of Alan Bradley in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. This series is for young readers but equally enjoyablepoison1 for the more mature reader. The main character, Flavia de Luce, is obsessed with poisons. So I thought it would be intriguing to create a post of poisons that Flavia might enjoy reading, or perhaps, critiquing.

Something that some people forget is that “poison” is a bit of a relative term. My husband always thinks he is going to go blind because he is sure that he has been exposed to some kind of poison. Anything can be a poison or that same thing can be good for you. It usually depends on the size and frequency of the dosage. If it is a small, isolated exposure, your body will most likely compensate and you won’t notice any adverse reactions.
For example,
The nightshade plant contains a poison called, atropine which can kill an adult in small doses, but in the correct quantities, it can be used as an antidote to treat nerve gas poisoning, as well as, be used as a cardiac stimulant. Ironically, a poison is an antidote for a different poison.  Also, many common variety vegetable plants are actually in the same family as this plant species.

Melanie Shaw/Flickr
Melanie Shaw/Flickr

Foxglove is a beautiful plant that many gardeners allow in their flower gardens but contains the poison, digitalis. If ingested, the poison-ee could experience nausea, vertigo and/or cardiac problems. Notably, it turns out, digitalis is used in creating a heart medication.

Karen Shaw/Freedigitalphotos.net
Karen Shaw Freedigitalphotos.net



Since the holidays are here, poinsettias will be everywhere but did you know that these plants also contain a poison? A poison that may not have an antidote? Perhaps the conspiracy theory side of your personality just took over; but before you go too far placing blame on these holiday symbols, there are a few more details you should definitely know. The toxins contained in these tropical bushes are known as diterpenoid euphorbol esters and saponin-like detergents. Basically, these organicare fairly common organic compounds found in quite a few plants, that if ingested, would probably only cause some tummy trouble. Since most of us experience tummy trouble around the holidays maybe it is really coming from all of the poinsettia exposure. Haha, if only we could blame our poor food consumption choices on such an unimposing specimen.poinsettia


Arsenic is a common theatrical poisoning, along with cyanide. Arsenic is actually found on the periodic table, atomic number 33. It is considered a metalloid which means no one can decide, or maybe arsenic just can’t decide, whether it is a metal or nonmetal.

(Just in case you didn’t know, the periodic table is divided by a line that separates metals from nonmetals.)

Arsenic has an allotrope that is very non-metal-esque and an allotrope that is very metal-esque. An allotrope is just a different form of a specific element. A classic example of allotropes is the different forms of carbon. Carbon can be in the form of graphite, diamond or charcoal. It is just a matter of how the carbon atoms arrange themselves.  (Notice how Carbon has decided that it is a non-metal? All of carbon’s allotropes are nonmetal-esque. It’s not a metalloid.)

arsenic2Arsenic can be in its yellow form or its grey metallic form. I don’t think I’m the only one that just can’t imagine someone downing a chunk of arsenic metal with a glass of water, so usually the poisoning comes from any one of arsenics naturally occurring compounds. Whether from the rock strata and into the water source, like in Bangladesh, or from yellow Arsenic pigments derived from the yellow allotrope that finds its way into paints and dyes, the effects seem to be the same, usually cancer.

And finally…….
Cyanide. Cyanide actually has some similarities, chemically speaking, with arsenic. Cyanide is a compound made up of Carbon and Nitrogen, unlike the aforementioned single element, butvalence it still has ties to the Nitrogen group on the periodic table which includes Arsenic. Due to their electron configurations which describe where the outermost electrons like to hangout and how many there are, the elements in the nitrogen family tend to form double and triple covalent bonds. This trend is linked to the chemical property of toxicity. Fantastic, a whole group of poisons. Once again the periodic table proves to be genius.
(If you don’t believe me, please visit this other post so that your opinion can be swayed)

cyanidelewisThe most common form of a cyanide poison is usually when it bonds, ionically (not ironically, that’s different) with elements from the alkali metal family. Thus, cyanide is known as a polyatomic ion. It has a -1 charge. Hydrogen cyanide is usually a gas and can be inhaled. Potassium or sodium cyanide would be suitable for adding to food or ingestible substances to create the dire poisoning effects. I have to say that cyanide poisoning would be the quickest way to meet your end compared to other poisons. But that statement seems a little too morose for me.  Suffice it to say, definitely stay away from this one.

To wrap it all up, I think the topic of poisons has proven to be a good review of several chemical topics that would be presented in a typical introductory course. Its just much more fun to deal with these topics in such a deadly manner rather than the same old boring drone of chemical terms and memorization.

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