Natural AND Deadly

By Michael Edmonds 22/06/2013 17


The marketing industry makes use of phrases such a “made only from natural ingredients” or “all-natural” to sell a range of products. In making such claims they rely on the myth that anything “natural” is good for us. Perhaps this myth arises from the misguided anthropocentric belief that the natural world was somehow designed to serve humanity (though how lions, tigers and great white sharks fit into this interpretation of the natural world I’m not sure!).

However, if one takes a closer look at the natural world we find it filled many deadly substances capable of taking out not just one, but large numbers of people. Indeed some of the most deadly substance known to us are natural. Across the internet you can find many lists of “the 10 most toxic substances” which vary depending on how one defines “toxic’, however in most of these lists the majority of the 10 most toxic substances occur naturally.

Below are a few of the deadly natural substances that tend to be found on such lists:

Botulinum toxin

While the rich and famous use this toxin to paralyse facial muscles and reduce frown lines, swallowing or inhaling one millionth of a gram will kill you. This toxin is a protein, produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. The lethal nature of this toxin was first observed in relation to the poisoning that can occur with improperly prepared meat products.

 

Saxitoxin

One of the toxins associated with paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) a dose of around 0.5 mg is lethal if swallowed, though it is at least 10 x more lethal by injection. Saxitoxin is a much smaller molecule than the botulinum toxin.

File:Saxitoxin structure.pngsaxitoxin structure (from Wikipedia)

 

Tetradotoxin

Tetradotoxin is most commonly associated with the Japanese delicacy, the puffer fish (though it is found in a range of animal species). If prepared incorrectly, the puffer fish can become contaminated with tetradotoxin from the fish’s liver. Early numbness may be followed by vomiting and then paralysis, with death occurring anywhere between 20 minutes to 8 hours. There is no known cure for tetradotoxin poisoning and the lethal dose has been estimated to be around 25 mg for average human being. One of the earliest cases of tetradotoxin poisoning may have been observed by Captain James Cook in Septemver 1774, when some of Cook’s crew consumed local fish. While the crew suffered only numbness and shortness of breath, the pigs who consumed all of the leftovers and discarded material were dead by the following morning.

File:Tetrodotoxin.svgTetradotoxin structure (from wikipedia)

 

Ricin

In 1978, Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov was walking on London when he felt a sharp pain in his thigh. Three days later he was dead. An autopsy found a small pellet in this thigh containing traces of ricin. The assassination was attributed to the Bulgarian secret police, though KGB defectors have stated that the KGB assisted in providing the technology. This case has been referred to as the “Umbrella murder” as it is believed the pellet was shot from a mechanism concealed in an umbrella.

Ricin is a naturally occurring protein extracted from the castor oil plant. It has a lethal dose of less than 2 mg for an overage human being if injected or inhaled.

 

Tetanospasmin, is the deadly toxin produced when a wound is infected with Clostridium tetani. The resulting condition, tetanus, is also referred to as lockjaw, due the muscular spasms which occur in the jaw and other parts of the body. The lethal dose is similar to that of botulinum (1 millionth of a gram).

 

Aflatoxins, produced by the fungus, Aspergillus, are a range of different toxin molecules, some of which are lethal at sub-milligram quantities.

File:(–)-Aflatoxin B1 Structural Formulae V.1.svg Aflatoxin B1 structure (Wikipedia)

 

 

So the next time you hear phrases such as “natural – it’s got to be good for you”, spare a thought for these toxins.

 


17 Responses to “Natural AND Deadly”

  • RonL

    The point of this blog postis not that the substances above are promoted by the “marketing industry”, but that people should not assume that if something is “natural” that it is therefore safe.

  • I don’t know anyone who thinks that snake venom, arsenic, Botulinum toxin, rhubarb leaves or even deadly night shade are safe because they are natural.

    The only people I hear equating natural and safe are skeptics who continually put down anything non-pharmaceutical.

    Can you provide any examples where people have claimed snake venom, arsenic, Botulinum toxin, rhubarb leaves, deadly night shade, or any other known poisonous substance as safe because it is natural?

  • RonL,

    I suggest you read my blog and my first response to your first comment above. You are misunderstanding the point of the blog.

    “Skeptics who continually put down anything non-pharmaceutical”

    Wrong, RonL. There are some natural products that have beneficial properties. However, the point I am trying to make and which you seem unable to grasp is that “natural does not automatically mean safe”

  • Ron,

    Michael explained to you (very clearly I thought) that he was writing “that people should not assume that if something is “natural” that it is therefore safe”

    He is not writing “some people consider these toxic things safe because they’re natural” or words to that effect.

    (You seem to think your phrasing is a corollary or counter-argument, but it’s not.)

    His post is simply illustrating that natural things can be toxic, too (very toxic at that), to illustrate that marketing pitches that offer things as being better/safer/whatever for the customer because they are natural in and of itself are nonsensical.

    “The only people I hear equating natural and safe are skeptics who continually put down anything non-pharmaceutical.”

    Many people, in an ill-defined and general way, associate ‘natural’ with ‘safe’ even though it’s not particularly logical to do so. I find it hard to imagine anyone being unaware of it.

    (Written before Michael’s reply to you.)

  • Grant says, “His post is simply illustrating that natural things can be toxic, too (very toxic at that), to illustrate that marketing pitches that offer things as being better/safer/whatever for the customer because they are natural in and of itself are nonsensical.”

    Grant, if his post was about that he’d have given examples of products being marketed containing toxic substances. He hasn’t.

    It’s a bit like using examples of butcherous murder to argue against the use of smacking as a form of discipline.

    Of course natural things can be toxic… that is a no brainer.

    You prattle on about “Many people, in an ill-defined and general way, associate ‘natural’ with ‘safe’ even though it’s not particularly logical to do so. ”

    You must associate with weird people because I have never ever met a single person that I know of who automatically associate ‘natural’ with ‘safe.’

    It is totally illogical to do so, and apart from self-proclaimed skeptics, I personally have not heard anyone do so.

    Of course, I have heard/seen people talk about a product being natural… but that’s to differentiate their product from being synthetic.

    Then again, people talk about natural orange juice when in fact there is nothing natural about orange juice… it is the result of processing…

    My point, again, is that if Michael is going to rubbish the marketing industry making use of phrases such a “made only from natural ingredients” or “all-natural” to sell a range of products, then he should give examples to make his case… he hasn’t. There is no connection at all between the argument and the examples used to make the argument.

    Perhaps he could give an example where the marketing industry makes use of phrases such a “made only from natural ingredients” or “all-natural” to sell a range of products that are dangerous.

    For the record, such products would be illegal under existing law and if they are in fact being sold then that doesn’t say much for our regulator, the Ministry of Health, or the Minister of Health who has the power under the Food Act to ban such products and prosecute such dangerous marketing practices.

  • Ron L,

    You said “You must associate with weird people because I have never ever met a single person that I know of who automatically associate ‘natural’ with ‘safe.’”

    Well I have come across people who do conflate natural with meaning safe, and have always found that telling them about natural substances which are not safe is one way to get them thinking more carefully about their beliefs.

    And I wouldn’t call them weird, only ill-informed.

    No where in the post have I said that those referring to natural ingredients are selling something dangerous.
    My point is that the use of “natural” in this way encourages the myth that natural = safe

  • Maybe it just differentiates natural from synthetic. Have you ever thought of that.

    Good examples to use re ‘natural is safe’ argument…

    Arsenic is natural.

    Snake venom is natural.

    Faeces is natural.

    Your argument would have been valid if you gave actual examples where the marketing industry makes use of phrases such a “made only from natural ingredients” or “all-natural” to sell a range of unsafe products

    • RonL,

      I don’t see how you are distinguishing between my examples of botulinum toxin and tetradotoxin, and your example of snake venom.

      “Your argument would have been valid if you gave actual examples where the marketing industry makes use of phrases such a “made only from natural ingredients” or “all-natural” to sell a range of unsafe products”

      Still missing the point despite having had it explained to you multiple times. Oh well, never mind.

  • Michael, your argument was about the follies of marketing companies promoting the term ‘natural’ to sell products and then you used examples of dangerous ‘natural’ substances to attempt to discredit the practice.

    Give a real example…

    eg; Natural highs… BZP was a good example… marketed as natural… why? Because the Ministry of Health/NZFSA said it was a natural ingredient and could be sold as a dietary supplement… (True. Has seen the actual letter to Matt Bowden, Chair of STANZ.)

    That said, BZP was not that dangerous at <200mg. At one point over 80% of teh product was made in GMP registered manufacturing plants… then that stopped. Why? Because NZFSA told licensed facilities if they continued to make quality controlled products they'd lose their manufacturing license. So what happened? Manufacture moved to back yard sheds, garages or China. In one case the a well known GMP registered facility bought a shipping container, parked it just outside the failities gates, and moved production after hours.

    What made BZP dangerous was idiots selling "more is better" with 1gm sachets being marketed. Also, in Christchurch known gangs & drug dealers controlled the local market.

    Don't just post two totally different concepts alongside each other and imply a cause and effect.

  • RonL,

    You are getting a little closer but you still haven’t quite grasped what the blog is about. I’ll try breaking it down.

    * Marketing companies like to use the term “natural” when they can.

    * The implication is that natural is always good.

    * Natural is not always good – here are some examples of natural compounds which are quite dangerous.

    I think the problem you are having is you are trying to force a meaning on what I have written which isn’t there.

    No where have I stated that companies selling products that use the world “natural” are selling dangerous products. What I am saying is that this constant use of the word natural reinforces the idea that “natural implies safe, which is simply not true.

    And while you are smart enough to know that natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe, there are people who assume it does.

    • RonL

      Yes, the news about Tip Top was very interesting. I found it interesting that they said the natural colours and flavours were more expensive but they would not raise the price. (I just hope the containers don’t get smaller 🙂 )
      I personally prefer the flavour of natural vanilla essences over its’ artificial variation – natural flavours tend to be fuller due to the wider range of compounds in them.

      “if the vast majority of people thinks natural is better then it is better…”

      From a purely advertising perspective I can see what you mean but consider if we adjusted that sentence to

      “if the vast majority of people thought the moon is made from cheese, then the moon is made out of cheese”

  • Michael said, “I personally prefer the flavour of natural vanilla essences over its’ artificial variation – natural flavours tend to be fuller due to the wider range of compounds in them.”

    Isn’t that what naturopaths and natural proponents have been saying for yonks?

    Michael, are you walking the road to Damascus??? 🙂

    • RonL,

      “Isn’t that what naturopaths and natural proponents have been saying for yonks?”

      No, RonL, there is a difference between flavours and medically useful substances.

      The way our sense of smell works is that mixtures of volatile substances provide a fuller smell (flavour). It does not follow that a mix of compounds will have multiple medicinal effects. One of the advantages of pharmaceuticals is that that they (typically) consist of one compound of known activity and dose. With preparations from natural sources (e.g. herbal medicines) it can be difficult to guarantee consistent dosage of active compounds. There complexity can be more of a challenge than a benefit.

  • Michael said, ““if the vast majority of people thought the moon is made from cheese, then the moon is made out of cheese””

    If that’s your theory then until someone can disprove it it sits on the top shelf… isn’t that how science works?

    • RonL,

      That isn’t my theory, it was a rephrasing of your theory that:

      “Regardless, Natural sells. and if the vast majority of people thinks natural is better then it is better…”

      What is essence you seem to be saying is that perception is reality, which isn’t how science works