I’m Justin Brower and a Forensic Toxicologist. I only do postmortem work, meaning dead people, so I see a lot of weird stuff. It’s not quite like CSI – we’re not all beautiful people wearing sunglasses. But it’s still pretty cool.
I earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry. Organic chemistry for those that care, so I have a fondness for chemical structures, so you’ll see a lot of those. I started out in Big Pharma . . . OK, it was more like Micro Pharma. I then transitioned to a career in toxicology because it seemed like a good idea at the time. My company was shutting down, and I didn’t feel like staying in pharma, even though I love drug discovery and development. The industry is such a roller coaster, with not a lot of stability. So I got into toxicology and thought I’d stick around for 6 months to figure out my next move, and here I am, 8 years later. I’ve really grown to love postmortem work, and find it fascinating to see how people kill themselves and others. No two cases are the same.
I started this blog for several reasons, one of which was to push myself to learn more. So I took my love of chemical structures and things that kill people and morphed them into this.
So why Nature’s Poisons? Methadone and Oxycodone have been done to death. What I’m not likely to see in my job is someone dead from taipoxin. There’s just not too many Australian Inland Taipan snakes in my neck of the woods. Thank goodness, I hate snakes. So I can at least write about it. I also like plants and gardening, and seeing how there are thousands of plant based poisons, there’s no shortage of material.
Some things I will write about:
- Nature’s Poisons – all types chemical and biological
- Interesting poisonings – recent and historical
- Old uses of Nature’s Poisons
- Pharmacology and toxicology
Some things I will not write about:
- Cases I am involved with, either directly or tangentially. I’m sure you understand why.
If you know me, and the agency I work for, then you know that these writings are my own, with my own thoughts and opinions. I don’t represent my employer in any way, shape, or form. Ever.
So enjoy, and don’t try these things at home. If there is anything you’d like to know, or for me to write about, just send me a note: NaturesPoisons@gmail.com and follow along on Twitter @NaturesPoisons
Keep up the good work doc.
Same here : nice articles, can only encourage you to keep going !
Excellent website Justin. Good science and very well written (I’m a clinical biochemist and a keen gardener)!
Have a look at Cassava – I knew a colleague from Zambia who worked in a hospital and said they had many cases of cyanide poisoning due to improper preparation of the root.
It’s on the list! Thanks for reading and the kind words.
write a piece on the Amanita Muscaria mushroom! NOOOOOW!!
Please do Botulism. What it is, what kinds of deaths it is causing these days.
I had an argument with friends who don’t understand why low-acid pre-cooked food in pouches that says “keep refrigerated” should not be left in a hot car during a camping trip, since “germs can’t get in” and “we’ll be cooking it anyway.” Botulism can make a toxin that is not later denatured by heat even when the bacteria is killed, right? Pickles and jerky exist for a reason!
You need new friends. I sincerely mean that.
You are right, to a point. The bacteria associated with botulism is anaerobic – it thrives in places without oxygen – so think jars, cans, and pouches. You can kill botulism toxin though, but it requires heating to near boiling for 5 minutes (according to the CDC). This is something that is unlikely to happen when simply “reheating” foods, which is why botulism is present, and spreads.
I do a lot of canning, so I’ve got botulism on the list! Thanks for reading!
As for your friends…I really mean it. But if you’re attached to them, at the very least don’t invite them to any pot-lucks.
The root beer story is one of your best! Are the active parts of kratom opioids or opiates? Or both? How do you define the difference?
Thanks, Robert, I appreciate it!
That’s a great question. Technically speaking, opiates are natural products coming from the poppy plant (and acting on the opioid receptors, of course) – like morphine and codeine. Opioids are synthetic analogs that are based upon morphine – like oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Where it gets a bit muddy on the opioid side are with drugs like fentanyl and methadone. They clearly don’t have a morphine-like structure, but we call them opioids because they have morphine-like action and are synthetic.
Regarding kratom and it’s chemical mitragynine, it’s natural and has opioid receptor activity, but without similarity to morphine. So technically it’s an opioid, much like we call our endogenous endorphins and dynorphins opioids.
But I often see mitragynine called “an indole-alkaloid with opioid-receptor activity” – which is correct, but it doesn’t excite me.
Me personally though? I tend to call anything that comes from a natural source an opiate and anything synthetic an opioid.
Hope that helps at least a little bit.
I enjoyed your article on aconitine. I was researching toxins that disrupt hyperpolarization for my neuroscience class, and I came across your website. I also enjoy your humor. Thanks for helping me out with my quest for knowledge.
Glad I could help. Thanks for reading!
It seems there is a split in definition of the two, which I find fascinating. I have tended to follow the wikopedia entry on opioids. All opiates are opioids, but not vice versa. In the end, it seems it is not incorrect to call mytragynine an opioid? How about loperamide? Guess you cannot do a story on that cause it is not natural.
Oleander is a riot. Imagine the evolutionary implications. Bees getting pissed off wasting their time and Oleander plants saying “kiss my ass, that’s what you get for stinging animals.”
I’d call loperamide an opioid, but that’s just me. I’m by no means the nomenclature police though.
Thanks for the feedback, I do greatly appreciate it.
Do you mind if I e-mail you? I have a question regarding loperamide and mitragynine, something I’ve seen used together in some of my casework.
Sure, email me anytime. Robert
I’m waiting to see your comments on three of nature’s heavy hitters (pun intended!), batrachotoxin, tetrodotoxin, and palytoxin. There’s also a interesting story as to the CIA, saxitoxin, and a silent dart pistol that launched water soluble needles. The patent makes for interesting reading, especially as the accidental testing of the needles!
One of my friends, a physician, used to sell poisons. He was later murdered, not surprisingly. In certain areas of international business, poisoning is not so unusual. From time to time, I would like to be able to consult with you about such things. I have had one very unusual medical incident in the past that may well have been a poisoning but have known others who have acquired undiagnosable diseases after years of working in intelligence.
Justin, your subjects are fascinating and your writing is clever!
A suggestion a little off the beaten track. When I was a kid, “everyone” knew that certain plants were poison if eaten: Red yew berries, the orange berries on the barberry bush, Osage orange (“monkey balls” in my hometown of Pittsburgh), and gingko fruits. Can you comment on how this information is transmitted? My parents were not outdoorsy people so I surely didn’t learn it from them! Kid to kid?
How do we know certain flowers, for example, are edible? I’ve been to fashionable affairs where nasturtium or violets are included in the salad. Folk wisdom? Enough trial and error? Passed through mother’s milk?
I’m more conversant with industrial toxicology, so it is refreshing to learn about “natural” poisons. Thanks!
Sounds like more of a sociology question than a toxicology one!
I’ve always wondered how things get passed down and become “common knowledge” to everyone. Kids absorb everything, at least mine do. I suspect your parents were told as kids not to eat the yew berries, it stuck with you, and you’ll pass it on to yours. Or maybe they read it in a Readers Digest while at the doctor’s office. Who really knows?
But I do think there might be a pseudo-genetic component too – did I say I wasn’t a sociologist? I suspect ancient groups or tribes of people that had written and oral histories lived longer than those that didn’t. Ones that passed along the “don’t eat those red berries” message lived longer than those who didn’t, and were able to pass along their genetic information into the gene pool and subsequent generations.
Oh, and definitely trial end error and observing what the fauna eat (though that’s not foolproof). Every time a I eat an artichoke, I think, “who’s idea was this?”
Just my 2-cents. Thanks for reading!
Fun Fact: The RED ARIL of the yew “berry” is actually edible, but the seed inside it is not and is indeed quite poisonous. If the seed’s completely intact, it’s meant to pass through an animal’s digestive tract to be deposited elsewhere, but if the outer shell is cracked at all while eating the aril, the inner toxin can seep out while digested. But in order to keep everyone safe, especially kids, it’s easier to just tell people the whole plant is poisonous.
Pingback: Nature's Poisons - The Garden Professors™
A wonderful educational and entertaining site!
I spotted two more potential subjects for you: wild parsnip (yes, the origin of the vegetable!)
and giant hogweed (I need to check my early Genesis lps again)
Mystery writer, Elizabeth George, used wild parsnip as the toxin du jour in one of her Inspector Lynley mysteries. I believe the murderer got away with it four or five times in that book.
Thank you Justin, quite an education you provide, I had the suspicion that the “wild parsnip” mentioned by susiesquillions on October 18th and previously by Derek Parsonage, might have been Water Hemlock – aka – Cicuta. Quite deadly to horse and other animals with a few case of children succumbing to the toxicity.
Wild parsnip contains phototoxic chemicals, like a lot of plants in the carrot family, that can cause quite severe phytophotodermatitis. Basically, the chemical gets on your skin if you touch the plant’s sap, and when the chemical is exposed to sunlight, it creates a rash that can be mild all the way up to permanently scarring. Giant hogweed is basically a gigantic parsnip on steroids, and is becoming an invasive problem in a lot of areas around the globe. Damn furanocoumarins…
ok I know what I want to do when I grow up
Great Stuff! Loved your piece on Kratom. Would also like to speak w/you offline and will email you @ NaturesPoisons@gmail.com.
Great stuff Justin. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all your articles. I’m from the Tropical Spice Garden in Malaysia and we’re currently creating a small space called the Poison Garden. So your write ups have been an inspiration.
Was wondering if you can do a piece on Gluta malayana or the Malaysian rengas, which has caused a lot of grief for a lot people, yours truly included. Would love to hear your insight on it.
I am no toxicologist or chemist in any way. I am NOT INTERESTED IN POISONS either. I happened to come across your site for a damn urgent submission for my college but wasted or rather ENJOYED reading a couple of articles in here just for the way you have put in the facts. You have a unique way of teaching even without the reader knowing that he is learning. Good english and presentation. Wonderful.
Hello Justin happy jewish/christian egg finding bunny rabitt weekend.
I am.just a dumb electrician but I like chemicals too! I read your post on Kratom. I was wonder about specifically targeted organs…..and Kratoms harmfulNess to them. I would guess the brain and liver are the most obviously affected <— noticed the proper context of the word! Lol any way happy rabitt wekend!
The latest article I see on this site is from November 2015 and the the latest reply to a comment from you is from February 2016. Is this blog still be updated or have you discontinued it?
Your blog is simply fantastic. I hope you don’t mind if sometimes I directly use it, with your name in full view of course, to start clinical discussions with my students. For instance, I devised a (hypothetic) clinical case of two Gambian illegal immigrants in Italy who arrived at the hospital with an unusual combination of nausea, vomit and gastrointestinal symptoms looking like severe cholitis associated with severe asma-like bronchospastic crises. I steered my students along a differential diagnosis journey that at the end led to potatoes with some green sposts (and solanine) that they stole in sun-drenched potato fields for survival. At the end, we read together the relevant solanine information in your blog. Much the same for the clinical case I devised about the risks of e-cig refills—a differential diagnosis journey in two children who, while playing in a downtown park, found a pleasantly smelling half-filled vial and tasted the fluid. And rapidly ended in the emergency room with tachycardia, paleness, diaphoresis, dizziness. lower limb fasciculations, superficial respiration and feeble resistance to passive mobilisation. Thank you again, also on behalf of my students.
April 7, 2018
Justin- While doing research for a novel, I came across your blog site on poisons. Highly readable, informative, credible, and done with humor. Hope you keep up the site, even if on a sporadic basis. Don’t know if your site counts click and reads, but wanted you to know your work is appreciated.
I’m an author, so don’t think I’m planning on killing anyone. Is there a deadly poison that an average guy can find and administer which doesn’t take effect too soon and doesn’t have obvious symptoms like vomiting? Just kills the person?
You’re asking for the “perfect poison” – easy to get, not obvious as to what it is, and delayed death so the killer can get out of town and have an alibi. And being a writer, you probably want something a bit interesting, too. There’s probably nothing that fits that bill perfectly, but peruse through this site and I’m sure you’ll get some ideas. Often the hard part is the “easy to get,” as dimethylmercury would be interesting, but how would an antagonist procure it? Cardiac glycosides can be obtained from natural sources, but can kill fairly quickly (hours), and does have symptoms. Then you’ve got to figure out how to administer all of these poisons.
Happy killing…I mean writing.
Hi Justin, any chance I can contact you directly? I have something I want to send you. Many thanks!
sure. My blog email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Having just consumed an interesting new food in a little streetfood restaurant whilst on a work trip in Jakarta, I thought I’d google it …. (sound of bell tolling) …. the good news is that I’ve now found your fabulous and informative site!
Great blog, funny, informative, relevant! I found it looking up polkweed on google. I knew it was bad …but now am heading out fully covered to remove it from our yard. because, poison.
You got a little Mark Twain thing going, very enjoyable.
Thanks so much! As long as you’re not eating it, the pokeweed is fine. But it does kinda get lanky and ugly looking, so that’s a good enough reason to pull it out too.
All these posts are so fascinating! Loving reading the blog. Hopefully I can add more plants to the special part of garden now I can get out of the house. Think I’ve seen others ask can’t find now, recommendation for fave books, any welcome, when you’re able. My best 🙂
Doc, what poisons would people put onto the legendary poisoned blade? You know, the blade that would kill with just a scratch (or even a puncture, as with Caesare Borgia’s ring) without the inconvenience of having to wait for several hours or several days?
It seems like ricin would do it, but they didn’t have ricin refined at the same time they were fighting with swords and daggers. Some say aconite, some say arsenic, some say hemlock would do it. I don’t know. It’s not a very efficient way to administer a poison, on a blade, is it? Even the arrow poisons like acokanthera take a few hours to work. Is there a LD50 below which they don’t work as poison for poisoned blade, or is a fat soluable vs water soluable thing or what?
Oh my god! you are literally THE MOST inspirational model in my life. I happened to come across your website accidentally and it really REALLY has made a great impact. I aspire to be like you . ALL THE TIME.