Toxic Gas First Used in Syria 1,700 Years Ago
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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If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has really carried out a chemical attack, it wouldn’t be the first time poisonous gas brought death in the Middle East country.
Indeed, right in Syria archaeologists have found some of the oldest evidence of chemical warfare.
According to University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James, who published his findings back in 2009, poison gas was used in Syria more than 1,700 years ago when a Roman fort at Dura-Europos became the site of a violent siege by the powerful Sasanian Persian empire.
No historical record exists of the battle, which occurred around 256 A.D., but archaeological remains, unearthed by major excavations in 1920-1937 by teams from France and Yale University, and after 1986 by French-Syrian teams, helped James piece together the action.
Trying to enter the city, the Sasanians dug tunnels underneath its walls. Intending to hold their ground at all costs, Roman defenders responded with counter-mines.
In the 1930s, archaeologists unearthed dramatic evidence of the fight. In one of the tunnels, a pile of bodies, still completely fitted with their weapons and armour, testified to the horrors of the battle.
At the time, the researchers believed the trapped Roman soldiers had died after the tunnel collapsed. But according to James, residue of pitch (a resinous substance) and yellow sulfur crystals found in a jar lying near the bodies indicated a much more gruesome reality.
Indeed, the Sasanians placed fire pits strategically throughout the tunnel, and when the Romans broke through, they gassed them by adding sulfur crystals and bitumen to the fire.
“Defining what constitutes a chemical weapon in antiquity is complex, but this is certainly one of the earliest archaeological finds of the addition of chemical accelerants to a fire to produce toxic fumes,” Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, told Discovery News.
Mayor described the skirmish in the tunnel and the presence of burnt residue as an early example of archaeological evidence for a chemical incendiary in her 2003 book “Greek Fire, Poison, Arrows and Scorpion Bombs.”
According to the scholar, a possible contender for the earliest archaeological evidence for a chemical weapon is a charred, manmade fire ball from the archaeological battle site at Gandhara, Pakistan.
“The burning missile had been hurled at Alexander’s besieging army in 327 BC. Chemical analysis revealed the ball’s composition included sulfur, barite, and pitch,” Mayor said.
The ball was certainly ignited in a fire, but whether this was deliberate or accidental is impossible to establish.
Long before World War I, when 39 different toxic agents — ranging from simple tear gas to mustard gas — were extensively used, it was a mixture of sulfur and pitch that gassed enemies.
Greek historian and Athenian general Thucydides described how, during the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans created a sulfur and pitch (in this case pine resin) fire at the siege of Plateia, Greece, in 429 BC.
The Boeotians, Sparta’s allies, used a similar chemical flame-thrower in 424 BC at Delium, combining burning coal, sulfur and pitch.
Aeneas Tacticus (360 B.C.), one of the earliest Greek writers on the art of war, suggested combining pitch and sulfur to defend against sieges.
“These are the earliest recorded uses of a chemically enhanced incendiary to create a poison gas,” Mayor said.
“The combustion of sulfur creates toxic sulfur dioxide gas. The fumes are lethal if inhaled in large quantities,” she added.
Image: At the Palmyrene Gate, the principal entrance to the city of Dura Europos, toxic gas brought death more than 1,700 years ago. Credit: Heretiq/Wikimedia Commons.