Backdoor Pharmacist’s Guide To a Poisonous Valentine’s Day

February 12, 2015 | Backdoor Pharmacist

The Feast of St. Valentine has been corrupted and stolen by Hallmark to sell cringeful punny greeting cards, chocolate corn syrup bombs, and upsold meals at restaurants you wouldn’t go to otherwise. Fuck off mass-produced mandatory affection; what I truly love is chemistry. Poison is an exotic chemical meant to hurt or kill. In the play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s plan is to join his beloved Juliet in death with a bottle of poison. “Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die” — that’s romance to me.

It’s Valentine’s Day, and christ do I hate it. And maybe you have someone you hate, and what’s more romantic than poison? Here’s a quick guide to my Top 8 favorite poisons for this day of love.

8. Dioxin

Technically, this is TCDD or 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, often just called “dioxin.” It is the most toxic and best-studied member of the dioxin family. It’s a far too common industrial pollutant that affects a ton of systems. It will give you cancer, fuck up all your organs, and ruin your kids. It has been banned by international convention. It’s so bad that it was a contaminant IN Agent Orange. That’s right, the horrible mutagenic, baby-killing herbicide sprayed all over Vietnam that made everyone from civilians to veterans horrifically ill wanted no part of TCDD.

(Why am I allowed to use Paint.NET?)

The problem is that TCDD toxicity may take several days to manifest. Its most prominent effect is called chloracne, a teenage nightmare that can scar forever. The most famous case is that of Ukrainian politician Viktor Yushchenko, who during the 2004 presidential election was poisoned by TCDD in a failed assassination attempt. He survived, but his handsome features did not.

(From Agent Orange Record, a non-profit dedicated to the legacy of chemical warfare in Vietnam)

Exposure to chlorine compounds causes chloracne. It started with stomach pain and a greyish tinge in his skin that erupted into acne from hell. His gut filled with ulcers as the dioxins tore through his body. Eventually it hurt so much he had to have morphine injected directly into his spine. The stuff also dissolves into your fat, so even if it doesn’t kill, it will cause horrible effects for years. Treatment is just supportive.

7. Ethylene Glycol

This is what people are referring to when they say “antifreeze,” a readily available poison. The problem is that it is colorless and odorless, possessing a sweet taste. Kids and animals love chugging huge amounts of the stuff if they can find it.

Another problem is that it seems like alcohol poisoning at first. If mixed into an alcoholic beverage, particularly a sweet one, it may just make someone look like he drank too much. Even after the initial symptoms resolve, the glycolic and oxalic acid are destroying the organs, particularly, the kidneys. Within three days, the kidneys fail. To save your life, your doctor will have to get you wasted.


That’s right, getting drunk will save your life. Ethylene glycol’s danger comes from its metabolic byproducts, glycolic and oxalic acid, which are produced by the liver enzymes that digest alcohol. So what you need to do is keep the ethylene glycol from being metabolized too quickly, to give the body time to clear the acid. Which means a lot of ethanol to keep your liver busy.

6. Cyanide

Cyanide, a devilish combination of just a single carbon and nitrogen along with another atom, is one of the most potent toxins around. It’s also one of the most common poisons used in murder. The Nazis used cyanide gas to execute their victims at the concentration camps. Cyanide blocks the ability for your cells to use oxygen. You turn red as the oxygen in your blood rises. Each breath you take is pointless, you suffocate in otherwise perfect health.

It is only available from chemical supply companies, and even they are wary. In a recent case in 2013, a medical researcher poisoned his wife with it via poisoned creatine powder. While it’s recognized if you can make it to a hospital, it may kill you too fast to get the antidote. Cyanide has the faint odor of almonds, so if a medical researcher you’ve been fighting with hands you almond-scented protein powder, turn it down.

(You know what doctor, I don’t feel like bulking up today)

5. Toxic Solanaceae Plants

Seems like all of the plants in the family Solanaceae hate us. Every part of these plants contains toxins, but some are safe to eat, like tomatoes and eggplants. But medicinally, mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), jimsonweed (Datura stramonium), and black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) were a big part of European “witchcraft.” In small doses, these tropane alkaloids cause hallucinations and a sensation of flying.

Big doses set the heart racing, body seizing, fever spiking, muscles twitching, and can even be fatal. You do not want to fuck with these plants. The extracts of these deadly plants were well known in Europe as poisons. In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote:

“Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon (alternate name for henbane) in a vial,
And in porches of mine ear did pour
The leprous distillment.”

(From my roots to my petals I will fucking murder you)

The names of these plants lend their names to the psychoactive deliriant tropane alkaloids they produce to fuck us up. Deadly nightshade gives us “atropine,” black henbane gives us “hyoscyamine,” and the plans contain more deliriant hallucinogens like scopolamine and apoatropine. They are easily found, and “witches” would make potions of them to kill their enemies. Underdoses lead to running around like a lunatic and no memory as detailed in a previous article.

4. Mercury

Ocean fish want to kill you. They’re filled with mercury, and big fish that eat other fish (like Tuna) accumulate mercury.

Different forms of mercury cause different symptoms. Methylmercury, found in fish, causes problems with your peripheral vision, weird tingly feelings, stumbling, muscle weakness, and impairment of talking, walking, and hearing. Hopefully, the local ER will recognize that someone with BAC of 0 shouldn’t be drunk.

Other forms of mercury, like elemental mercury, will get you put on a watchlist. If you dig around at a junkyard you can probably rummage up a good amount of leftover elemental mercury and heavy metal toxicity. Those symptoms include tremors and mood changes. You’re going mad, and it’s the mercury’s fault.

Too bad that Chinese royalty and their alchemists were convinced that it was magic. The Emperor Qin Shi Huang was told the mercury pills would make him immortal, and he popped a bunch of them. And then promptly died from mercury poisoning.


(Not the key to immortality, not trying to hoard it for myself)

3. Arsenic

One of two substances that were called “succession powder” were arsenic substances. There were 17th century rings of women and chemists peddling arsenic. Italy, in particular, was thrown into a panic. With no tests for arsenic poisoning and symptoms that looked like cholera, a lot of soon-to-be-rich heirs and abusive husbands died of cholera. Its ability to disguise itself as cholera meant a lot of monarchs from Europe to Korea fell victim to it. Arsenic poisoning became a noble way to die, enough to become codified as the death penalty in medieval Korea.

Napoleon, while in exile, demanded his palace be filled with wallpaper to remind him of his imperial legacy. But the dye, copper arsenate, was filled with arsenic. A form of mold developed and started filling his palace with arsenic gas. His vanity ended up killing him slowly.


(Thank you, Wikipedia, for the Tudor crown)

Biochemically, it fucks up your body’s ability to use thiamine, an important vitamin. All your organs start shutting down in protest, your fingernails develop lines, and finally you go into a coma and drop dead. The stuff contaminates groundwater, and rice, especially, picks it up. There are chelating agents that help remove it and symptoms are now well recognized.

2. Thallium

This has been called the poisoner’s poison, and in French, it’s “poudre de succession,” or inheritance powder. Thallium salts are odorless, tasteless, colorless, and dissolve well in food and drink. For hundreds of years they were the go-to choice for disposing of inconvenient relatives and bad spouses. There was a “thallium craze” in Australia during the 1950s, and in 17th century France it became so common that a writer lamented the name “Frenchman” was going to become synonymous with “poisoner.”


(Thallium poison may not be this obvious)

The thallium gets sucked up anywhere your body wants potassium and starts killing your hair and nerves. Its hard to diagnose thallium poisoning. The symptoms resemble other types of heavy metal poisoning and lupus — but it’s never lupus. The one differentiating factor is the pain in extremities. It’s said to feel like dipping one’s arms into lava and then walking on hot coals.

Here in New York, a woman and her roommates came into the hospital complaining of stomach pain. A day later, even brushing gently against the little hairs on their hands caused agonizing pain. Doctors asked if they had eaten anything unusual, and lo and behold, the woman’s ex had brought her a box of expensive marzipan.

The suspicious candy was taken to radiology. An x-ray of normal candy is just a light blob of whatever it’s shape was. These candies, on the other hand…

Screenshot 2015-02-10 23.13.27

Thallium is radiopaque, meaning that it doesn’t let x-rays through. These had so much thallium in them they showed up as bright white beacons of death. Luckily, treatment is readily available with “Prussian blue,” a blue dye that locks onto thallium and all you have to do is let it clear out. It’s safe, so doctors administer it early if they suspect it. Thallium is no longer the “succession powder” it once was.

1. Polonium-210

This is truly the king of poisons. It’s extremely rare, with no known antidote. And having access to it means you’re above the law. It’s 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide, but oddly enough it’s completely safe to hold in your bare hands. That’s because 210Po kills by radiation, a specific type called alpha decay. This means the unstable atom pukes up charged particles constantly, strong enough that it glows a faint blue. But alpha particles are extremely heavy and can’t penetrate your skin.

The problem comes when someone sneaks it into your tea, as Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko found out in 2006. If even as little as a single milligram gets into your body, the alpha particles smash into your internal organs. He suffered severe diarrhea and puking. For weeks, doctors led a futile search for an answer. In front of his friends and the press, he lost his hair, slowly grew weaker, and finally died.

(Uh, waiter, I asked for Earl Grey, two sugar, and ZERO polonium)

In his final hours, that UK authorities detected the 210Po. Since no one had ever been murdered before by radioactive tea, they didn’t think to look. The only way to get that much 210Po is to use a nuclear reactor. It’s produced by bombarding Bismuth-209 in a reactor, with nearly all of it made in Russia. Only state actors with nuclear reactors can get their hands on it.


(I see what you’re up to Putin)

The inability for the alpha particles to penetrate the skin meant it was undetectable from the outside. Litvinenko’s own skin blocked it from detection. Police got out the Geiger counters and followed a radioactive trail back to the bar and the teacup. The contamination was so severe that the taxi he rode in and his home were rendered unusable. The suspects fled to Russia, where the Russians promised to help. When UK authorities asked for extradition, SHOCKINGLY, PUTIN REFUSED.

On a final note: Dear Russian Federal Security Bureau, please don’t put polonium in my PBR. I will not defame Putin, except that he’s a sinister KGB veteran who’s somehow spun the perfect mix of tricking the rich to support him before backstabbing them, and using an avant-garde artist to send the opposition into tatters.

(Photo: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)