A Brief History of Poison

From the earliest days, when our ancestors first swung down from the trees, humans have been aware that eating certain things will induce sickness or death. We share this awareness of poison with many animals. Some veterinarians believe when dogs eat grass, it is because they are suffering gastro-intestinal upset and are inducing vomiting. The dog ingests a mild poison to avoid the effects of a greater poison.

Humans are the only animals to administer poison to other members of their species. Throughout much of western history, from Greece and Rome, through the Borgias and the Medicis, poison has been the preferred murder weapon, because while the science of chemistry was sophisticated enough to produce the poison, the science of forensic medicine was not sophisticated enough to show with certainty that poison had been the cause of death. So while the Caesars fell to poison, the cause of death could only be assumed and none could determine the guilty party.

The poisons which have become familiar through history are all pretty straightforward – ptomaine and salmonella in food, cyanide, arsenic and strychnine from the hands of evil-doers. What all these substances have in common is that they are acute poisons. They may make you sick, they may kill you, but whatever their effect, it will manifest itself quickly. For most of human history, we have only been concerned with acute poisons. Cause and effect are very clear. Drink this and die.

It is only in this century, and particularly since the second world war, that we have become aware of latent poisons. A latent poison is defined by the long interval between the ingestion of the poison and the manifestation of the effect. Many people became aware of latent poisons in the early 1960s when the surgeon general definitively linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer. Like the poisoners of imperial Rome, the tobacco industry has taken legal refuge in the idea that the fatal cancer in any particular corpse cannot be directly linked to the ingestion of their particular poison twenty years earlier.

The realization of the significance of latency in the action of some poisons spurred hundreds of studies and the disclosure of scores of latent poisons. The 70s and 80s passed in a frenzy of scientific discovery of latent poisons. So many were disclosed that each passing announcement had a smaller impact on our depressed consciousness. We threw up our hands. “It seems everything gives you cancer,” we said.

What we didn’t know then is that there is another stage of poison. In the past few decades, the medical community has become aware of transgenerational poisons. These are poisons which are ingested by parents and whose effects are manifested in the bodies of their children.

An example of transgenerational poisons are organochlorines, a family of chemicals that includes dioxin. Women who ingest organochlorine poisons have shorter pregnancies and their children have lower birth weights, smaller heads, and more developmental difficulties than children whose mothers had not ingested organochlorine poisons.

The effects of organochlorine poisons can be passed from fathers as well as mothers. One manifestation of transgenerational poisons could be called the “ultimate poison” because the effect is that it prevents men and women from having children at all.

Transgenerational poisons are, by and large, toxic byproducts of industrial processes. Like so many poisoners before them, the corporations that produce these poisons are seeking to avoid responsibility for the consequences of their actions. These corporate polluters have to be stopped because if they are allowed to continue at their present rate, we will have to contend with the poisoning not of individuals, but of our species.

(c) Mark Floegel, 1997

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