White is beautiful dear ladies, smear your face with paint of lead,
Never mind the lead had made the men who mixed it ill or dead.
Many substances that are known to be poisonous, and even fatal in large enough doses, can nevertheless do us some good if administered correctly. For example, Warfarin, which is used as an anticoagulant, is also used as a rat poison and the painkiller Ziconotide was found in the venom of cone snails (Conidae). In nature, cone snails use their venom – delivered by hypodermic-like tongues - to immobilise their prey of fish, other molluscs, and worms. For any human stung by a cone shell the mortality rate is 90%.
The common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is highly poisonous and eating just one of the upper leaves is enough to cause nausea, vomiting, severe headache, diarrhoea, hallucinations.or even death. And yet its extracts can be used to control the heart rate. Ingesting Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) in any quantity can result in respiratory collapse and death but it has been used as a sedative and an antispasmodic throughout history. Meanwhile, Atropine, which is obtained from Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is used in the treatment of bradycardia (an extremely low heart rate). The name belladonna is Italian for ‘beautiful lady’ and originates from its use as a beauty product. An extract was used as eye drops to make the pupils dilate.
Botox contains a chemical called botulinum which works by binding to nerve endings at the point where they join to muscles and preventing the nerves from signalling the muscles to contract. It is also the chemical that leads to botulism and is the most poisonous naturally-occurring substance known to man.
Lead is a neurotoxin, a poisonous heavy metal that can affect learning, development and behaviour if too much is absorbed into our bodies. Lead poisoning can cause such things as reduced IQ, increased aggression, impulsive behaviour, seizures, anaemia, and brain and kidney damage. It has been linked to miscarriage, reduced fertility in both sexes, hormonal changes, menstrual irregularities and delays in the onset of puberty. What makes it particularly dangerous is that it accumulates in the body; small amounts ingested regularly can soon build to unhealthy levels. For 50% of people, a lethal dosage of lead is 7 grams.
Despite this, we have a long and unhealthy association with the metal. It is possible that lead was responsible for the unusually high numbers of cases of sterility among wealthy Romans. Indeed, some sources suggest that leaded wine was a major factor in wiping out the entire Roman upper class within two centuries. The Romans added lead to wine to reduce sourness, they used it in cosmetics, and they used it for plumbing: most pipes were made of lead, as indeed they were across most of the Western world until the mid 20th century. The very word ‘plumbing’ comes from the Latin for lead – plumbum. It’s also where the plumb line – a weight on a string used to measure how vertical something is - gets its name.
Lead-based face-paints have been used for centuries; the Egyptians and Romans used them and they were used to create the iconic white faces of Japanese Geisha. The white face was de rigueur for Georgian-era Europeans and they dusted themselves copiously with powders and paints made from lead carbonate. Small wonder then that there are very tight controls on the amounts of lead we are exposed to. In recent decades lead was removed from household paints, from petrol and from children’s toys. However, it is still used in some cosmetics, particularly lipsticks.
In 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested 33 brand-name lipsticks for traces of lead. 61% contained detectable levels ranging from 0.03 to 0.65 parts per million. None of these lipsticks listed lead as an ingredient. Their report A Poison Kiss states: 'When we lick our lips, eat and drink while wearing lipstick, or kiss someone who is wearing lipstick, we ingest the lipstick’s ingredients'. Glamour magazine’s June 2002 ‘Beauty Quickie Tip’ repeats a commonly quoted statistic, ‘Women inadvertently (but harmlessly) eat about 4 lbs of lipstick in a lifetime.’ Unfortunately, the latest science shows that no level of lead is ‘harmless’.’
In another report called Pretty Scary, the campaign found that children’s Halloween face-paints also contain lead; 10 out of 10 commonly bought brands contained lead at levels between 0.05 and 0.65 parts per million (ppm).
'Mr Churchill, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea!'
'And if you were my wife, I would drink it!'
Vitamin A is important to our bodies and a deficiency causes night blindness. Vitamin A deficiency still affects a third of all children on Earth under the age of five, resulting in over half a million deaths each year. However, Vitamin A is really toxic; we use it in anti-wrinkle creams because it actually kills the top layer of skin, making it look fresher. Too much, however, can be fatal.
500 grams of polar bear liver will deliver about 9,000,000 international units of vitamin A to your diet, easily enough to kill you. Smaller doses of vitamin A can lead to headaches, blurred vision, loss of hair, drowsiness, diarrhoea and enlargement of the spleen and liver. Polar explorer Xavier Mertz was the first ever recorded death by Vitamin A poisoning as a result of eating husky dog livers. In 1974, a health food addict called Basil Brown drank 10 gallons of carrot juice in 10 days - containing 10,000 times the recommended dose of vitamin A - and died as a result.
Expect poison from the standing water.
Convicted poisoners in England between 1531 and 1547 were boiled alive.
Bread used to be widely adulterated with the dangerous chemical alum to make it look white.
Just 0.15 micrograms of botulinum can kill a 75kg person.
A lethal dose of caffeine is about 50 double espressos.
Highly poisonous red lead was put in Double Gloucester cheese in the 18th century to make it a more attractive colour.
Robert Oppenheimer, ‘the father of the atomic bomb’, tried to kill his university tutor with a poisoned apple.
In 2011, Chinese billionaire Long Liyuan was murdered at a business lunch by means of poison in his slow-boiled cat-meat casserole.
Pope Clement II and Beethoven have both been posthumously diagnosed with lead poisoning.