Foods Can Kill

I often write about poisons and toxins that kill, but what better way to kill someone than with a substance that’s lethal but not so easy to detect.

Such scenes make for good fiction reading, but a devastating reality is the factMH900411701 that normal foods can also kill.

Reports of contaminated foods being recalled because they contain lethal bacteria are in the news often when people become ill after consuming them. However, there’s another side to the story of lethal foods.

Food allergies cause minor, and sometimes severe or deadly, allergic reactions. In fact, the statistics are staggering. Food allergies affect over 15 million Americans, and every three minutes a food allergy sends an American citizen to the emergency room.

One in 13 children are included in this category—roughly two in an average American classroom—and nearly 40% of these children have already experienced a life-threatening food reaction, called anaphylaxis.

That means the reaction to the offending food caused a rapidly progressing allergic reaction that, if left untreated, would likely lead to death. The symptoms include rash development, a weak and rapid heartbeat, plummeting blood pressure, swelling in the oral mucosa, and a lethal closure of the airways.

Researchers tell us that the numbers of people with food allergies are increasing at a significant rate—an 18% jump in the decade between 1997 and 2007—and that peanut allergies have tripled in recent years.

MH900177951Regarding the rapid increase in peanut allergies, scientists theorize that roasted peanuts may be part of the problem. In other countries with lower rates of peanut allergies, peanuts are often boiled and children in those countries begin consuming the ground-up food at an early age—at a few months old rather than at three or four years old, like in America.

There are injections that can be given to desensitize a person to most environmentalMH900308894 allergies—like cedar, oak, dog, cat, etc. But, like many insect allergies, there are no desensitizing injections that are available for food allergies.

Presently, studies are being conducted with children who are highly allergic to specific foods. Small quantities of the offending food are introduced, with progressively larger portions under controlled conditions, in an attempt to desensitize the child to the severe allergy. Although peanut allergies tend to be lifelong, there has been hopeful success in desensitizing children who develop allergic reactions after eating peanuts or peanut products. More good news is that about 20% of children with peanut allergies eventually outgrow them.

Besides peanuts, some of the more common causes of severe food allergies include shellfish, wheat, soy, milk and eggs.

Scientists don’t have definitive answers for why this spike is happening, but there are some viable theories. As America continues to become a “cleaner society”, our children are not exposed to the irritants that older generations encountered and adapted to as they progressed through childhood.

In 2012 a new organization was established to address the need for a cure of lethal food allergies. The organization is called Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) and it was created from a merger between the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) and the Food Allergy Initiative (FAI). FARE combines the expertise of FAAN’s food allergy information resources and programs with FAI’s large private source of funding for food allergy research.

The focus of FARE is increased awareness of this growing problem and the need for better education regarding the impact of food allergies. But, by combining advocacy at all levels of government with world-class research to advance treatment options, the evolution into finding cure options can begin.

Having lived through a severe and almost lethal allergic medication reaction when I was a child, I have personal knowledge that anaphylaxis is a frightening experience. It’s one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Still a FamilyWhen a severe food allergy leads to anaphylaxis in a child, the entire family is impacted. The best prevention is knowledge and preparation. To that end, every parent should go to Anaphylaxis 101 for a short education in food allergies, what symptoms to look for and what to do if a severe reaction should occur.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Are Antagonists Also Anti-Heroes?

The other day a person whom I admire posed an interesting question to me? What is the difference between an antagonist and an antihero?

I have to admit that I paused a good while to consider my answer before spouting something rather lame—suggesting correctly that I needed to refresh my memory that there was even ANY difference between the two types of characters. I will use the word “hero” here generically, obviously referencing either a male hero or a female heroine. In this day and age of equality, actors and heroes are either male or female.

Fiction stories with clear protagonists and antagonists are simple to Antagonistfollow and keep readers grounded as to which side each is on. The protagonist is the hero, the main character, the advocate or champion of a particular cause or ideal. The antagonist is the villain, the adversarial character to the hero, the one who actively opposes or is hostile to the hero and his or her cause.

But for thousands of years, dramas have never been that simple—even inGreek Drama Ancient Greece, simple was boring! Characters were and are complex with good and bad traits, and it’s that complexity of character and personality that draws the reader, or draws in the viewer in the case of television or film, into the story to connect with the characters.

Enter the Antihero!! This individual is often described as one whose ideals are contrary to the protagonist. However, that also is the basic definition of an antagonist. So what makes one character an antagonist (the villain) and another an antihero, often a leading character who gains considerable sympathy and admiration from the reader or viewer?

Consider this! The villain or antagonist is always in opposition to the protagonist. This character actively opposes or is hostile to the hero, although the antagonist may not necessarily be mean or a bad person.

The antihero, on the other hand, can be initially antagonistic but who evolves over time to be a protagonist. The antihero may have ideals contrary to the protagonist, but ultimately gives in to the goals and desires of the hero. Antiheroes go through mental, and maybe spiritual, conflicts within themselves and this fatal flaw impacts the decisions they make. Often the antihero teams up with the protagonist, not at all costs, but possibly to get some personal reward—doing the right thing for personal reasons rather than for the greater good.

AntiheroExamples of antiheroes would include Wolverine from the X-Men, Walter White from Breaking Bad, Conan the Barbarian, and Severus Snape from Harry Potter. All of these characters differ from an antagonist because they are notable figures conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities but who ultimately decide to do the right thing. An antagonist (the villain) never decides to do the right thing and is usually (hopefully) defeated by the end of the story.

The antagonist is often the most disliked character in the story—the fly inConflicted Character the ointment, so to speak—but the antihero is the character that elicits sympathy and admiration from readers and viewers because they connect with antiheroes on a more personal level since antiheroes are conflicted characters with tragic flaws, as most of us are in real life from time to time.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Whey is Way Cool These Days!

CheeseWhey, the tart liquid by-product when making cheese and yogurt, is often sold as a protein source in many nutritional supplements used for bodybuilding and in meal replacement products. It’s also used to enrich baked goods and to produce bread dough.

Recently, however, whey has taken on a pop-culture profile with the introduction of whey-based gin. All gin is made with different fermented combinations of the main ingredient, juniper berry, and can include various botanical combinations that incorporate coriander, sage, nutmeg and/or rosemary.

In late 2015 the Ballyvolane House Spirits Company in Cork, Ireland introduced a blend of whey-distillate made from whey alcohol derived from the milk of Irish cows, natural spring water and a secret mix of locally-grown botanicals.

The enticing concoction is called Bertha’s Revenge. Bertha, a legendary cowBig Bertha from Sneem Co, Kerry, Ireland actually died in 1993 at the age of 48. Considered to be the world’s oldest cow, Bertha had given birth to 39 calves over her lifetime. To immortalize her memory, this special, hand-crafted gin was named in her memory.

Bertha’s Revenge is said to “have a fragrant nose, a soft mouth feel, and warming spicy middle notes to mirror her (Bertha’s) maternal core . . . with a long, confident fruit-driven finish to celebrate her longevity”—all in all, a worthy dedication to a memorable beast.

Whey-based alcoholic drinks, however, are not only limited to the gin Gin Martinivariety. In 2012, the world’s first milk vodka was distilled using whey as the main ingredient. And last year a Charleston, South Carolina distillery launched a line of alcoholic drinks made with whey and which included flavorings such as coconut, lime and grapefruit.

If you’re thinking that this blog may be informative but sort of “off topic” for a Murder, Mayhem and Medicine-focused blog, remember that the most entertaining murder mysteries use imaginative and memorable murder weapons. A whey-based brew laced with a lethal substance could provide the perfect literary device, not only to make the murder scene unique, but also to offer an intriguing twist to the murder investigation.

It would seem that whey-based libations are becoming more popular worldwide and the future of whey looks bright. Such concoctions might provide clever vehicles for dosing your villains with a lethal substance in your next murder mystery.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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The Drugs Women Use To Kill

Women are more sedate killers!dreamstime_xs_18033974

Statistics indicate that only 39% of killers using a gun to murder their victims are women, and women are six times more likely to use a poison or a drug to kill (2.5% for women compared to 0.4% for men).

Criminologists agree that women who murder are not the norm and that murder is a predominantly male trait. Women commit only 11-15% of all murders according to recent statistics, and women account for a mere 2% of mass murders.

Women also are not usually serial killers. Women tend to know their victims, and according to studies are more likely to kill just one person. Serial killings account for only 1% of all murders anyway, but women represent only 17% of serial killers.

MH900448347The usual murder victims of women (up to 60%) are their significant others (a spouse, an ex-spouse or someone the murderer is dating), and women tend to use poisons or drugs that don’t produce violent side effects when they kill.

The types of drugs most commonly used as murder weapons by women include those that sedate their victims—drugs that cause the victim to fall asleep and never wake up. These include toxic doses of alcohol, opiate painkillers and sedatives-hypnotics. Let’s take a closer look at the specifics of these general categories:

Alcohol: This might include spiking one’s drink with too much alcohol and alsoMH900314314 injecting the victim with a lethal dose after the person is too intoxicated to fight back. Methanol and isopropyl alcohol (the kinds of alcohol used in rubbing and disinfectant alcohols) are the most lethal to inject. Ethylene glycol (a form of alcohol used in antifreeze) is a most effective poison when added to flavored drinks.

Opiate Painkillers: Opiate drugs include some of the most popular prescription painkillers. Some are natural opiates derived from poppy seed plants. These include the familiar drugs codeine and morphine. They are powerful painkillers and larger than therapeutic doses will suppress the central nervous system to produce an opiate coma and eventually death.

Other often-prescribed painkillers are synthetic drugs manufactured to function as opiates in the body. These synthetic opiods are usually much stronger and work faster as lethal drugs. These opiates include oxycodone (Oxycontin), oxymorphone (Opana), hydrocodone (Vicodan, Lortab, Norco), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol) and fentanyl (Duragesic). These are strong painkillers and therefore more effective and efficient when used as murder weapons.

For instance, a mere 7.5mgs of hydromorphone is equivalent to a larger 30mg dose of morphine. Click here to view a chart of therapeutic dosing and duration of actions, and click here for equivalent dose comparisons of the various opiate drugs. A normal one-week supply of any of these medications, as is often prescribed for severe pain, would be more than enough to kill a victim—with a few pills left over to calm the killer’s nerves.

Sedatives-Hypnotic Drugs: These medications, like the opiate drugs, cause the body to slow down—and in large enough doses cease bodily functions all together, and death results.

The barbiturate and benzodiazepine classes of drugs predominate the sedative-Prescription-Drugshypnotic drug categories. The barbiturates include all the “…bital” drugs: secobarbital, pentobarbital and phenobarbital most notably. The benzodiazepines include Valium, Librium and Tranxene tranquilizer drugs.

Some non-benzodiazepine drugs include the popular sleep medications Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata.

All of these sedatives-hypnotics are potentially lethal in larger than therapeutic doses and are readily prescribed by physicians these days to patients with sleep disorders.

In summary, most murderers are male and most murder victims are also male. A 2008 study revealed that 1.6 women (as compared to 11.3 men) committed murder out of every 100,000 people. But when women do commit murder, they tend to choose a less violent method.

With drugs so much a part of our everyday world in modern society, the medications mentioned above make excellent and very effective murder weapons.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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SAMARIUM – The Good and The Bad

In the past I’ve blogged about lethal radioactive chemicals (here and here) asbosch_image possible murder weapons to use in your murder mysteries and thrillers. There is another rather dramatic radioactive agent—a beneficial medication at that—which could take center stage in the development of your next lethal plot.

Samarium is a radioisotope drug used to treat the pain associated with bone cancer. The treatment is more palliative than curative—that is, it increases a patient’s comfort level by decreasing the pain associated with metastatic bone cancer but does not cure the disease. The drug is often one of several treatments used for patients with lung, prostate and breast cancers—as well as those with osteosarcoma.

The chemical, named samarium (Sm153) lexidronam, has an interesting molecular structure such that the body treats the chemical like calcium and 642x361_Natural_Home_Remedies_for_Knee_Painselectively uptakes the drug into the body’s skeletal structure like it would calcium. Once administered, the drug is distributed throughout the body before it is absorbed into bones, where it remains.

What makes this pharmaceutical such a great murder weapon is that it’s given intravenously in a clinical setting such as a hospital, and therefore it’s relatively easy to obtain for the creative villain. There are more than 10,000 hospitals worldwide that use radioisotopes in medical treatments. Therefore, it’s a good bet that a hospital clinic that treats metastatic bone cancer would have samarium-153 on hand.

The drug emits both radioactive beta particles (the therapeutic part) and gamma rays (which make it easier to locate in the body). As with other radioactive chemicals, larger than therapeutic doses can be lethal. In one of the episodes of the television drama Law and Order Criminal Intent, a person is murdered by unknowingly ingesting three vials of samarium-153.

Samarium is available as a preservative-free solution that is clear, colorless to4_2_3_7_001 RadioPharmaVial slight amber in color, and comes in 10-ml vials that must remain frozen until used. The drug expires (technically, its therapeutic half-life) within 48 hours after being removed from the freezer.

The side effects of an overdose can be dramatic. The initial symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, joint aches, fever, chills, cough and a sore throat—in other words, flu-like symptoms occur early on that can mask the detection of a victim being poisoned until it’s too late. The symptoms progress to noticeable heart rhythm abnormalities, breathing difficulties, tingling or numbness of the extremities, excessive nosebleeds and internal bleeding that can exhibit as blood in the urine.

Certainly, this prescription drug is of great benefit to the medical community, but it can also be an exceptionally useful tool for the murder mystery writer with a creative, and possibly devious, mind.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Got Milk or Brucellosis?

I’ve often blogged about biological weapons—both those used in the past and those with potential for use in your new thriller plots. The world’s population has certainly been victim to biological warfare in the past.

Viper SnakeIn 184 BC, Hannibal’s warriors hurled pots of deadly viper snakes onto the decks of enemy ships. In the 1100s, bodies of plague and smallpox victims were thrown over the city walls of enemies; and in 1495, Spaniards offered the French wine spiked with leper’s blood. These are but a few examples of the many ancient biologicals used historically in warfare, not to mention the nerve gases developed and used by Germany during the First and Second World Wars.

Today, the world has a plethora of biological agents available in secret government warehouses and there are treasure-troves of lethal weapons that can be used as the focus of intriguing thriller plots.

One such biological agent that I’ve not come across until recently is brucellosis. Farm-AnimalsThis interesting biological is a zoonotic infection, meaning that it’s a disease that can be spread between animals and humans. Six out of ten of the world’s most infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals, and brucellosis is reported to be the most common zoonotic infection.

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease originating mainly from cows—but also from swine, goats and sheep. It’s been known throughout history by various common names, including Mediterranean fever, Malta fever, gastric remittent fever and undulant fever.

One of the main sources of brucellosis infection is consumption of raw milk from farm animals. A 20-year study of the global burden of human brucellosis has determined that 500,000 people worldwide are infected with this disease every year. The areas of the world most affected include Eastern Europe, Asia, Central and South America, and regions of Africa.

SombreroMost of the cases reported in the United States are due to consumption of illegally imported, unpasteurized dairy products (milk and cheese) from Mexico. Approximately 60% of human brucellosis cases in the US now occur in California and Texas.

There is growing interest in brucellosis diagnosis and treatment by the World Health Organization (WHO) because of the growing phenomena of international tourism and population migration, as well as the potential to use the Brucella bacterium as a biological weapon.

Death from a brucellosis infection is rare, but recovery from this debilitating illness can take weeks and up to several months. The initial symptoms of fever and sweats, anorexia and headaches, fatigue to general malaise, and pain in the muscles, joints and spine can progress in severity over time. Serious neurological complications and endocarditis can also occur.

The solution to the global spread of brucellosis in humans is two-fold: 1) the control and elimination of the disease in animals via culling of the infected animals and animal vaccinations; and 2) pasteurization of milk prior to consumption or use in making cheeses and other food products.

I love milk and drink lots of it. But, the next time I see a commercial for “GotGlass of Milk Milk?” I’ll remind myself to be assured that what I consume doesn’t have brucellosis riding along with it.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Teaching an Old Drug New Tricks

I’ve written in previous blogs (here, here and here) about the increasing danger of drug resistant bacteria—that one day we may find that certain bacteria have evolved to be resistant to ALL known antibiotics and that the so-called “Golden Age of Antibiotics” may be coming to an end.

MH900185160Medical experts are increasingly concerned that today’s most powerful and most often used antibiotics are sometimes not effective against common infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts. They suggest that at some point people may die from these common ailments, just as it was in the early 1900s. Minor infections may become life-threatening crises, and pneumonia and TB may be much more difficult to treat.

Drugs develop resistance to antibiotics in two simple ways: 1)MH900407492 mutations happen in the bacteria genomes to allow them to withstand antibiotic attacks, and 2) bacteria become infected with small pieces of foreign DNA that carries a gene for antibiotic resistance (sort of like jumping from one bug to another).

Much of the drug resistant bacteria studies indicate that overuse of antibiotics in common products such as household cleaners and hand sanitizers can lead to mutations that make bacteria resistant to antimicrobial therapies. Other studies indicate that antibiotics used to wash produce and those used at animal farms are overused and can lead to drug resistant strains of bacteria.

The end result is that bacteria present in our environment eventually become resistant to some of our commonly-used antibiotics. The antibiotics that are used to grow our food and those added to cleaning products eventually lose their effectiveness when prescribed to treat serious infections.

In recent years, drug resistance has increased at a greater rate than the development of new antibiotics to treat these drug-Prescription-Drugsresistant microbes. In situations where commonly-used antibiotics are no longer effective, healthcare providers are turning to some older antibiotics to treat these super bugs.

One such older drug that’s getting a second look is colistin (polymyxin E).  It was first developed in Japan in 1949 and became available for clinical use in 1959, primarily for the treatment of gram-negative infections (E. coli, salmonella, pseudomonas, helicobacter, legionella, and a few others bacteria). Although colistin is an effective antimicrobial agent against these stubborn bugs, colistin fell out of favor when newer, more effective drugs with less side effects became available.

These newer, safer and more effective replacements for colistin, however, areSpinach presently used to prevent such contamination in food products and to sanitize kitchen and bathroom surfaces, as well as being used in hand sanitizers. The abundant use of these once-effective antibiotics have allowed certain bacteria to develop resistance through mutations and DNA transference.

Therefore, medical professionals are beginning to use older drugs, like colistin, to effectively treat drug resistant infections such as CRE, a super bug that is reported to kill up to 50% of infected patients.

The news regarding the successful use of colistin is not all rosy, however. The very first case of a colistin-resistant bacterial infection has reached the United States. A 49-year-old women in Pennsylvania has contracted a colistin-resistant urinary tract infection. Fortunately, her doctors were able to treat her with other antibiotics and she will survive.

The battle to keep an arsenal of effective antibiotics available is rapidly losing ground to evermore drug-resistant bacterial strains. I sometimes wonder who will win the battle!

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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