Some plastic containers are safe, others aren't. And there's currently no way to know which are which.
Michael Marin Self-Poisons in Courtroom
July 3, 2012 --
Shortly after hearing a guilty verdict while on trial for setting fire to his Phoenix mansion in an effort to get out of his mortgage, former Wall Street trader Michael Marin shocked the courtroom by collapsing and dying in a suspected suicide. Video of Marin suggests he swallowed what media reports are speculating to be a poison pill. Within minutes of swallowing the pill, Marin goes into convulsions and later he's pronounced dead. Whatever Marin succumbed to needed little time to take full effect if the video of the courtroom drama does in fact detail the 53-year-old swallowing the poison that killed him. In this slideshow, take a look at some of the most dangerous poisons known to man.
Amatoxins The mushroom in this photo may not seem as terrifying as its nickname would imply. But a single ounce of this "death cap," which unfortunately can resemble its more edible cousins, is enough to kill a human being. Amatoxins, the poison found in this fungus, is what's behind this mushroom's deadly kick. They can severely damage liver and kidneys, and lead to coma, organ failure and more.
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Anthrax Anthrax was a bacteria that was all but off the radar thanks to decades of vaccination and sterilization programs aimed at containing infection rates. Then in 2001, anthrax became headline news when a series of attacks through the United States Postal Service killed five and sickened 17, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Anthrax spores can spread through the air and can infect a person or animal by coming into contact with a wound on the skin, by being inhaled by the host, or by being ingested in the form of tainted meat. Symptoms of anthrax infection depend on the method of exposure, but typically resemble the common flu. Inhaling anthrax is the most dangerous means of exposure and can be fatal up to 90 percent of the time.
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Botulinum Given that there are many poisons that can be lethal in small doses, pinning down the most dangerous can be considered a somewhat objective exercise. But toxicology experts all seem to agree that botulinum toxin, the same stuff that's used in Botox injections to clear up wrinkles, takes the cake. Botulinum, which causes botulism as the name implies, can cause respiratory failure, neurological damage and more at its worst. The bacteria can enter the body through open wounds or by being ingested in food.
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Cyanide If there's one toxin that has almost become a synonym for poison, it's cyanide. Cyanide can come in the form of a crystal or colorless gas that's been described as having a "bitter almond" smell, according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention. Cyanide also happens to be everywhere: It's naturally occurring in some foods and plants. It's in cigarettes. Cyanide is used to manufacture plastics, develop photographs, remove gold from ore, and of course kill unwanted insects, among other applications. Cyanide exposure can come from inhalation, ingestion or even touch. Poisoning from cyanide can lead to convulsions, respiratory failure and death in extreme cases.
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Mercury As described by the National Institutes of Health, there are three forms of mercury that can be potentially deadly: elemental mercury, inorganic mercury and organic mercury. Elemental mercury, which is what you find in glass thermometers, older dental fillings and florescent light bulbs, is harmless to the touch, but can be fatal if inhaled. Even if the person exposed survives, poisoning can still lead to long-term or even permanent lung and brain damage. Inorganic mercury, which is used to make batteries, can be deadly when ingested, and lead to kidney damage and worse. Organic mercury, found in fish, can be inhaled or ingested, and usually only affects those exposed over the long term, except in rare cases. Symptoms can range from memory loss to blindness to seizures and more.
Ricin Derived from castor beans, ricin is a naturally occurring poison, and humans can be exposed to it in the air, food or water, according to the CDC. Although the symptoms can vary depending on the method of exposure, ricin works by preventing cells from creating proteins they need to survive. Eventually, these cells die off, which can lead to organ failure.
Sarin Unlike all of the other entries on this list so far, Sarin is a synthetic toxin manufactured as a nerve agent. As explained by the CDC, sarin was originally developed as a pesticide, but this odorless, clear gas quickly became a tool for chemical warfare. Sarin can be inhaled or exposure can come through contact with the eyes or skin. The most recent use of sarin gas was in a series of terrorist attacks in 1994 and 1995 in Matsumoto and Tokyo, Japan, respectively, causing 20 deaths and injuring some 1,600 others. Symptoms from sarin gas exposure include blurred vision, convulsions, respiratory failure and more.
Strychnine Derived from the Strychnos nux-vomica tree native to India and southeast Asia, pure strychnine comes in the form of a white, bitter powder that can be deadly when inhaled, injected or ingested. Although commonly used as a pesticide, it has also surfaced in illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, according to the CDC. Strychnine poisoning can lead to muscle spasms, respiratory failure and even brain death within 30 minutes of exposure.
Tetrodotoxin Pufferfish may not seem like particularly dastardly animals based on their appearance alone, but they harbor one of the most deadly poisons known to man. Found in the skin, liver, intestines and other organs of the pufferfish, tetrodotoxin can cause paralysis, convulsions, mental impairment and more to anyone who eats this fish, at least when it's been served improperly. Although only a handful of cases are ever reported in the United States, there are as many as 200 cases annually of tetrodotoxin poisoning in Japan, with a 50 percent mortality rate, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
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- Just because a plastic product is labeled BPA-free doesn't mean its safe to put food or beverages in.
- It's possible to make plastics that don't contain hormone-disrupting chemicals, but it's impossible for consumers to tell which ones are which.
- People can protect themselves by not heating plastic containers that they're planning to eat or drink out of.
The elimination of the chemical BPA from plastic baby bottles, water bottles and other types of food and beverage packaging has given many people a sense of control over the plastics in their lives and the potential health risks involved.
But a BPA-free label doesn't mean a product is harmless, suggests a new study. When scientists conducted lab tests on more than 20 top-brand baby bottles along with more than 450 plastic food and beverage-packages, virtually all leached chemicals that acted like the hormone estrogen, even though many were free of BPA.
The new study, along with other work, suggests that the public's attention on BPA has been misguided. It now looks like there are thousands of possible chemicals in all sorts of plastics that act just like BPA. Called endocrine disruptors, these chemicals falsely tell the body's cells that the hormone estrogen is around, potentially causing all sorts of troubling developmental and reproductive consequences.
"Baby bottles, plastic bags, plastic wrap, clamshell food containers, stand-up pouches: Just about anything you can think of that's made of plastic that food or beverages are wrapped up in, we found this activity," said study author Stuart Yaniger, vice president of research and product development at PlastiPure, a technology company that works on developing safe plastics but gets most of its funding from government agencies. "It was shocking to us."
"The message is not anti-plastic," he said, adding that it is very easy to make plastic without estrogenic properties. "Plastics are good, but they can be made safer."
Because of its shape and size, BPA manages to fit into the receptors in our bodies that recognize estrogen, kind of like a counterfeit key fitting into a loose lock. Estrogen is a key hormone in the development of young bodies and reproductive systems, which is why the chemical has been banished from baby products in many places. But if BPA can fool estrogen receptors so easily, scientists have long suspected that many other chemicals probably do the same thing.
As part of a systematic look into plastic consumer products that might harbor such endocrine disruptors, Yaniger and colleagues bought hundreds of plastic food and beverage containers at Target, Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and other major retailers. Their purchases included all categories of plastic -- including rigid containers, flexible wraps, deli containers and plastic bags. Some contained food. Some were empty.
Some plastic containers are safe, others aren't. And there's currently no way to know which are which. iStockPhoto
The researchers cut each item into pieces, put them into liquids that simulated foods and drinks and then subjected the pieces to stresses that mimic normal use, such as microwaves, boiling water and ultraviolet light. Finally, they applied the resulting solutions to a certain kind of breast cancer cell that multiplies rapidly when exposed to estrogenic chemicals.
Results showed that more than 90 percent of the products leached estrogenic chemicals before they were even put through stresses, the team reported this month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. After being stressed, nearly all of the plastics showed estrogenic activity when applied to the cancer cells.
The researchers didn't analyze the solutions to see exactly which chemicals might be the culprits. But the paper pointed out that some of the chemicals that are used to replace BPA have been shown to have even more estrogenic activity than BPA does.
"This is certainly very startling and unexpected," said Arnold Schecter, a public health physician at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, who has published a series of studies on chemicals in our food supply -- many of which point to packaging as the main source of those chemicals.
Still, it is too soon to panic or banish all plastic from your life, said Schecter, who offered some caveats about the new work. It was a lab study, for one thing, so it will be important to see if other researchers can replicate the findings. It's also not yet clear what doses of chemicals could be expected actually get into people and what the real-world health implications might be.
Plenty of previous research has already shown that chemicals can leach out of plastic that is heated or otherwise stressed, added Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Toxicology Program in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The new work simply emphasizes the point that different isn't always better.
"When we move to alternatives," she said, "I think it's important that we test the alternatives to make sure we're not going to do the same thing or something worse than the compound we're removing."
For now, it is literally impossible for consumers to know which plastics might contain hormone-disrupting chemicals, so the old advice holds: Avoid heating plastics, leaving them in the sun, putting hot materials in them or putting them through other stresses if you're planning to eat or drink their contents.
Perhaps the best thing consumers can do, Yaniger said, is to put the pressure on businesses, just like they did with BPA. Instead of BPA-free, his hope is for future labels to be marked EA-free to signal a lack of all kinds of estrogenic activity.
"We recommend," he said, "that people go to retailers and manufacturers and ask them if they have tested these things for estrogenic activity and if they can provide EA-free packaging."