Thallium is a bluish-white metal that, in pure form, is odorless and tasteless. When combined with other substances like chlorine or iodine, it turns colorless-to-white with maybe a slight yellow tinge. It dissolves easily in water. In other words, it’s not easily detected when mixed with food or drink. Hmm! Sounds like an interesting substance if you need a character killed off.
In years past, thallium was used as a rat poison and an ant killer, but since 1975 it’s been banned in the United States (and many other countries as well) due to safety concerns. It’s highly toxic and readily absorbed through the pores as it comes into contact with skin.
Thallium’s extreme toxicity results in part from its chemical properties being similar to potassium. It uses the body’s potassium uptake pathways to be absorbed but bypasses the natural self-limiting mechanism we have for potassium ingestion. Thallium also binds easily with sulfur, an element essential for nutrient absorption and utilization. It disrupts necessary cellular processes and that’s a primary reason it was such a good rat poison.
One of its more distinctive side effects is hair loss. In fact, it was once used as a depilatory agent before its toxicity was fully appreciated. Another distinctive sign of thallium poisoning is that it damages peripheral nerves, causing excruciating pain. Victims are said to experience severe stomach cramps and nausea, and they experience sensations similar to walking slowly over hot coals.
Thallium was very popular in the past as a murder weapon. In fact, thallium has often been referred to as “The Poisoner’s Poison” and “The Inheritance Powder”. Investigations into suspicious deaths have discovered thallium in tea, sodas, soups and various foods. Radioactive thallium poisoning was said to be a favorite of KGB assassins and documentation suggests that Saddam Hussein used it to poison dissidents.
Murders from thallium have fallen out of favor in mystery novels but the substance has taken center stage in thrillers and stories of international intrigue. Primarily, that’s because of its antidote, Prussian blue. Although Prussian blue has been around since the early 1700’s as a color pigment, more recently it has been designated as a counter-terrorism agent. It’s not only recognized as a poison antidote but also as a decontamination treatment for radioactive poisonings: radioactive cesium and thallium in particular. No good thriller can end without the hero saving the day, and having a treatment option available is a definite plus.
But be warned! There are now diagnostic tools to detect and quantify thallium poisoning in blood and urine to aid medical and legal investigations into suspicious deaths. Normal body concentrations are minimal, usually less than 1 mcg/L. But a poison victim could have concentrations in both blood and urine of 1-10 mg/L (a thousand to ten thousand fold increase). And without body fluid analysis, symptoms could be attributed to other illnesses and a proper diagnosis not made until it’s too late.
Depending on the thallium dosage and the duration of exposure, a patient may recover with the Prussian blue antidote and other life support treatments. More likely, however, the victim will be beyond hope and die a painful death within days of exposure.
In my research I found many references to thallium being used as an effective poison in real life criminal situations and a multitude of references for its use as a poison in books, television episodes and movie plots.
Fortunately, thallium is more regulated now than in the past and used mostly in manufacturing electronic devices and semiconductor parts, but I’m sure a creative villain can find a source when the need arises.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
As always, a fascinating post Jim. I can visualise a lot of would-be Miss Marples taking copious notes.
As did I. Thanks for your kind words.
Thallium? Hair Loss? Ah hah, that must be the answer! 😉 I am trying to learn that bald is beautiful — my georgeous wife keeps telling me so.
Another great article, James. Saving these for future novels — be delighted to give you full credit for some great research.
No problem, glad to share. There’s plenty of devious plots to go around! I hear what you say about “bald is beautiful”. Thinking maybe I need to have my morning coffee checked for Thallium?!
Remind me to carefully watch my glass when you are around.
Worldwide production of Thallium is about 10 metric tons, with 1,750 kg imported into the US in 2011, almost two thirds from Russia and almost all of the rest from Germany. That may explain the KGB’s interest in it. Thallium costs around $6,000 per kg. About 50 kg last year was waste or scrap in the US and therefore easily subject to capture. There is no thallium recycling facility in the US.
While this is likely not the best choice, almost any medical murder mechanism can also be turned into mayhem, aka terrorism. An even slight increase in an unusual murder method may be practice for a larger action.
Thanks for those statistics, Walt. Appears that the regulatory actions regarding Thallium are not as tight as they should be.
James, great post! This is really great information and I love to read a blog so well conceived.
I’d be glad to have you as a guest anytime!
Thanks, I’ll follow your site and do that when time permits. All the best!
As always, fascinating stuff to get the mind working–for fictional purposes that is.
Love, love loved it! I chose Ketamine for my villains drug of choice. Thallium would be a good drug to use if someone wanted to watch someone suffer. Make it part of their personality. Awesome as usual Jim!
Yes, I had forgotten about Ketamine. Interesting drug: very useful and not too difficult to come by. Thanks, Diane.
so very nice
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