Killers from the Sea – Part 1

In last week’s blog, I discussed Water Poisons, specifically Cyanobacteria and Red Tide.  Today I want to dive deeper (pun intended) into the subject of sea toxins and discuss one of my favorites: Fugu.

Specifically, Fugu is the Japanese pufferfish and the dish prepared from it.  Often, however, the term is used for the tetrodotoxin poison (TTX for short) in the fish.  Pufferfish eat other sea creatures that have been infected with the TTX bacteria prevalent in some waters and the toxin collects in the liver, ovaries and on the skin of the this fish.

Proper handling of the fish during food preparation insures that the toxin is separated effectively.  Additionally, there are fish farms specializing in TTX-free fish to guarantee that the fish are never exposed to TTX-laden food.

The meat of this fish is used in some gourmet sashimi and chirinabe dishes.  Interestingly, the liver of pufferfish is said to be the most delectable, as well as the most poisonous, and special care must be taken to assure that a TTX-free liver is used.

TTX is extremely toxic, about 100 times more poisonous than cyanide.  This murder method has been used successfully in television crime shows and in novel plots, so you might want to do further research to invent more creative ways of administering the poison than what has already been done.

The Fugu tetrodotoxin can be ingested, injected, inhaled or absorbed through broken skin.  So your victim could consume the toxin, have it injected into a vein, inhale the poison or have it rubbed into an open wound.  There are so many ways to use this poison, and that versatility will certainly feed the imagination of writers developing murder scenes.

Symptoms from ingestion of this toxin usually begin with paralysis of the lips and tongue.  Excessive salivation follows shortly after and the heart begins to pound and race to 100bpm or more.  Sweating, headache, loss of sensation, general weakness and lack of muscle coordination exhibit next.  A sudden fall in blood pressure precedes seizures and cardiac arrhythmias.  The symptoms also include severe nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

Since TTX is a neurotoxin and paralytic agent, the victim is totally paralyzed as the toxin shuts down nerve impulses (the electrical signals that tell our body what to do and how to feel).  The interesting part is that the victim remains fully conscious during the process and death results from total paralysis of the diaphragm.  The victim simply stops breathing and dies from asphyxiation.  It’s a painful death for sure and with full realization of what is about to happen.

The lethal effects from ingesting or inhaling the toxin usually begin within 30 minutes, with a more rapid onset from direct injection.  Less direct methods, such as application to broken skin, could take up to four hours for symptoms to appear.

There is no known antidote for the Fugu tetrodotoxin, but immediate respiratory support increases the survival rate.  Additionally, the drug fampridine, a treatment option for multiple sclerosis, has been used in some cases to alleviate TTX toxicity.  This drug has been shown to reverse the progression of the paralysis and is a useful tool to save your protagonist from death by pufferfish poisoning.

Next week, I’ll highlight more poisons from the sea.  Until then, enjoy writing your next murder scene.  As for me, I can already picture scenes materializing in my mind.

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

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
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15 Responses to Killers from the Sea – Part 1

  1. I’ve watched Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern a lot, and he’s had several episodes where he eats the pufferfish, and has related how very few Japanese chefs are qualified – and licensed – to serve them. He even centered on a small portion of the population who get a kick out of eating the most dangerous parts. They can have it🙂

  2. Suzy Lapinsky says:

    I never worried about this fish when I ordered sashimi before, as I felt the places I went wouldn’t play with it; but, if fugu is being farmed I guess I’ll need to read the menus more carefully.

  3. Pingback: My buddy Jim Murray with a fascinating article on the deadly pufferfish « Thomas Rydder

  4. I’ll have mine with french fries, please ….:)

  5. Arlee Bird says:

    I’ve always wondered about this and other poisonous foods is who first decided to try eating it and how long and by what process was the toxicity discovered. How many people died before they perfected the presentation of Fugu in a safe manner and discovered all the other ways the fish could be deadly?

  6. Many thanks for the input. I’ve compiled a list of termination methods, and a list of termination candidates. Your TTX must occupy the top of my methods list, to be applied to my top candidates. Perhaps breakfast would be the most appropriate time.

  7. Lori says:

    While searching for information on ttx, I found your blog and am glad I did! I am interested in using this type of poison for a murder mystery I am working on and would love to have your input. Instead of a puffer fish, the poison would be obtained from a blue-ring octopus. One of my questions relates to whether the skin has to be broken? Also, would the method of delivery impact the length of time it would take for the poison to become effective?

    • Sorry for the delay in replying. Lori, but I had to look up the specifics on the blue-ring octopus before answering. Thanks, BTW, for your interest in my blog and for your comments.

      One of your questions was whether or not the victim’s skin needed to be broken for the venom to be effective as a killer poison. Generally, that is the case – there needs to be an entry path, but some literature suggests that simply prolonged contact with skin is enough for the poisonous venom to pass directly through the pores of skin and kill a person.

      As to the question regarding if the method of delivery impacts the length of time it would take for the poison to be effective – the answer is definitely “YES”. The more direct method of administration (such as swallowing the toxin or via an injection) would be much more effective and speedy than passive absorption thru the skin. And a direct IV injection would be a faster kill than an injection into a muscle since the rate of absorption into the blood stream would be slowed. An interesting idea to consider is that a slower method of administration would produce a much more dramatic murder scene and allow you to slowly unfold the symptoms and the drama of a slow death.

      Hope this helps and the best of luck on writing your murder mystery.

      I have one question for you before signing off. You’ve intrigued me with the TTX of the blue-ring octopus and now I want to make it a subject of a future blog. Do you mind if I use your idea? Asking for permission first in case you’d prefer to keep such a great murder tool to yourself. At any rate, thanks for asking and for bringing such an interesting murder tool to my attention.

      All the best to you!

      • mystkshdw says:

        Sorry for my delay when you so graciously responded to my questions. I appreciate the information you shared. Your help will be invaluable to me as I pursue my mystery and, if it is not too much trouble, I would love to correspond with you about my idea,for my book as I want to ensure I cover all of my bases and have it as factual as possible. Please let me know if this might be something you would have time for.

        As for covering TTX in a future blog, I would love it! It would help me ensure that I keep on track.

      • Thanks for your interest in this blog. I’d love to correspond with you regarding your murder scene. I’ll send you a separate message and see what specific questions you may have. AND I have further information on TTX for a future blog – probably in the next several weeks. So stay tuned! All the best to you and your writing…

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