Tuesday 27 April 2010

Mass poisonings

Up to 90 people have been poisoned by illicit home-made banana gin in Uganda. The drink, much in demand among those who can’t afford commercial alcohol, had in this case been laced with methanol, which is used in anti-freeze. It causes blindness, coma and death.

Between 1990 and 1992, about 300 children died from kidney failure in Bangladesh, after being given paracetamol syrup laced with diethylene glycol, a solvent which is also used in brake fluid. In 2007, the same chemical was responsible for up to 365 deaths in Panama from contaminated cough medicine.

One of the worst mass poisonings took place in Iraq in the early 1970’s. After a series of poor harvests, stocks of grain had become dangerously low, and the authorities imported nearly 100,000 tons of foreign seed, which they insisted should be treated with a mercury fungicide – highly effective, but highly poisonous.

The seed was coloured bright pink, and carried warnings – in English or Spanish – not much use to most Iraqis. Unaware of the danger, many people used it to make bread, which was often reported as tasting delicious, but altogether about 100,000 people were poisoned, with 6,000 dying. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

* Thanks to the Daily Mirror for quoting me on the Icelandic volcano eruption even if they didn’t get the story exactly right – see my comment. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2010/04/16/volcanic-ash-cloud-almost-wiped-out-the-human-race-in-1973-115875-22190307/

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