About

My name is Justin Brower, and I’m a Forensic Toxicologist. 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. I started out in Big Pharma . . . OK, it was more like Micro Pharma. I then transitioned to a career in postmortem forensic toxicology. It is 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. To death, get it? 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

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. Happy? Good.

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

25 thoughts on “About

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.”

    Robert

    • 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. Pingback: Nature's Poisons - The Garden Professors™

    • 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.

  10. 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.
    Regards,
    Adrian

  11. 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.
    Warm regards.

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