Killers from the Sea – Part 2

In last week’s blog we talked about the pufferfish and it’s lethal tetrodotoxin as a murder weapon.  Today I’d like to discuss a couple of other interesting sea toxins that could be used as instruments of murder to kill off characters in your stories of intrigue.

Saxitoxin:  This toxin is produced from marine plankton contaminated with toxic algae such as, Blue-green algae and Red Tide (as discussed in my blog on harmful algae blooms).  Saxitoxin is abbreviated as STX and is alternately referred to as Paralytic Shellfish Toxin (PST) or Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP).  This toxin accumulates in shellfish (clams, mussels and scallops) when they consume tainted plankton.

This chemical is highly toxic and can kill in very small oral doses (as little as 0.5mg for a normal sized person).  If the toxin is injected or applied to an open wound, only one-tenth of that oral dose would be needed to kill (a minute 0.05mg).

Poisoning by inhalation, however, requires larger doses (about ten times the oral dose), but that’s still a mere 5mg and certainly smaller than some other aerosolized poisons.

Such small deadly doses make saxitoxin a major cause for concern as a weapon of terrorism, but more importantly this toxin can be synthesized in a lab rather than harvested from infected shellfish for potential use as a chemical weapon.

Saxitoxin is about 1000 times more toxic than sarin nerve gas.  In fact, saxitonin already has a military history.  The United States previously designated it as a chemical weapon and provided saxitoxin-impregnated needles to elite US soldiers as suicide tools for use if captured and tortured for top-secret information.

It has been said that U2 pilot Gary Francis Powers had a hollow silver dollar on his person when he was shot down in 1960 over Soviet airspace and that it contained an STX-impregnated needle to use at his discretion.

The symptoms of PST and PSP involve paralyzing the nervous system but the unset involves a “flaccid paralysis”, leaving the victim calm, relaxed and conscious before paralysis sets in.  Death ultimately results from respiratory failure when the muscles of the diaphragm cease functioning.

Ciguatera:  This food borne toxin causes illness in humans from contaminated reef fish.  The source of the contamination is from marine microalgae called dinoflagellates found in tropical and subtropical waters and which transfer to fish as they feed.  Since larger fish feed on smaller ones (and the smallest consume the microalgae), the toxin moves up the food chain.  Predator species near the top of the chain are more likely to cause illness because of the greater concentration of toxins from multiple feeds on contaminated fish.

The toxin is odorless and tasteless.  It’s very heat-resistant, so conventional cooking does not detoxify the seafood.  The good news is that this toxin produces illness more often than death.

The symptoms of ciguatera poisoning are GI distress (nausea, vomiting) and a variety of neurological symptoms (such as, tingling fingers and toes, vertigo and hallucinations).  An interesting neurological effect is that the victim may find that cold things feel hot and hot things feel cold.  The poisoned person may even be misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Even though the toxin may not be lethal, there is no cure and symptoms can range from short-term to long-term.  The victim may recover in days to weeks but the effects of ciguatera poisoning may last for years (even 20 years or longer) and can cause long-term disabilities (coordination and communication issues).  Most recover slowly over time, but it should be noted that during the recovery process exercise could trigger onset of further symptoms.  A particularly nasty villain in your novel might get what he deserves with such a toxin.

Fortunately, there are lab tests to detect the presence of this toxin and Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry is most often used.  Previous to this science, “folk detection” was used to detect contaminated fish: ancient cultures determined that flies would not land on such fish and silver coins were put under the scales of a fish—if the coin turned black, the fish was not eaten.  One can assume that the owner was happy to have a tarnished coin to spend on something other than a funeral.

As with my previous postings on murder weapons, I hope these thoughts have stimulated your creative juices to plan and plot unusual murder scenarios that will delight and hold the interest of your readers.

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’d love to hear them!

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
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5 Responses to Killers from the Sea – Part 2

  1. Pingback: My buddy Jim Murray with his second installment of “Killers from the Sea” – and official notice that from now on, it’s the swimming pool for me :) « Thomas Rydder

  2. Shudder! Hope terrorists aren’t subscribed to your blog, James M. Pretty scary stuff, and very well written. Thanks.
    James O

  3. John Blissitt says:

    Fish Poisoning, and avoidance
    Being ciguatera free, is very tricky, by Dr J A Blissitt PhD Marine Biologist
    Keeping the risk of contracting food poisoning low should include, the following precautions should be observed: There is No real prevention as yet known. Usually lightning does not strike same place twice, but it’s still like Russian roulette.
    Best not to eat or avoid eating fish that have a local reputation for causing food poisoning (e.g. Moray eel ;Barracuda ;Grouper ;Kingfish ;Jacks ;Snapper ;Surgeonfish ;Parrot fish ;Wrasses ;Narrow barred Spanish mackerel ;Coral trout ;Flowery cod. Others can apply locally.
    Red emperor; sharks, moray eel, red bass, bream, trevally, grouper, etc.). Get advice from fishers about which fishing grounds are safe; Fish eat infected microalgae called dinoflagellates usually attached to rocks and digest them.
    Avoid areas for fishing if a toxic bloom has recently happened in this area. Ask locals. Ciguatera fish poisoning (or ciguatera) is an illness caused by eating fish that contain toxins produced by a marine microalgae called Gambierdiscus toxicus. People who have ciguatera may experience, extreme diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and neurologic symptoms such as tingling fingers or toes. They also may find that cold things feel hot and hot things feel cold. Ciguatera has no cure. Symptoms usually go away in days or weeks but can last for years. People who have ciguatera can be treated for their symptoms Use of IV mannitol: If a patient meets the criteria for a diagnosis of CFP, consumed the implicated species within the past 48–72 hours, and there are no contra-indications to its use, then treatment with IV mannitol is recommended. Repeat treatments may be necessary if symptoms return.
    Be careful with large reef fish (i.e. over 3 kg), and avoid them if possible. Wherever feasible, select smaller fish since toxicity is often proportional to size; 1.8 kg is best size.
    Gut fish thoroughly. Do not eat the head, eggs, viscera or liver, which are more poisonous than the fillet;
    Remember preparation or that freezing, cooking, smoking or any other method of preparation or seasoning does not eliminate the toxin;
    Old wives tales; Do not rely on flies, ants or coins, look, smell, or taste to detect a poisonous fish — these techniques have misled many people in the past.
    After suffering from a case of fish poisoning, avoid eating any kind of fish or other seafood for at least a month and avoid alcoholic drinks; ingesting alcohol and any kind of fish] can cause an augmentation or relapse of symptoms. Ingesting caffeine, nuts, chicken and pork, or experiencing physical over-exertion or dehydration have also been associated with symptom recurrence or augmentation. A relative of mine suffered with this for over 9mths, being only able to have liquid supplements, as could not keep down food; and later could eat No chicken products or stock for nearly 2 yrs. The case was by no means extreme but shows how long symptoms can persist.
    Avoid areas that have a reputation for being ciguatera free. They can suffer an outbreak of microalgae and become potentially dangerous (the reverse is also true). Beware also of older fish;
    Note there is no fish poisoning season. You can catch and eat a fish that contains enough toxin to give you food poisoning at any time of the year.
    Kits are expensive given they only have a short shelf life and only do 1 fish and sometimes give false positives.

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