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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 5th June 2011 

Here we go, again.

Go all the way back to its roots and the word ‘terrorism’ is derived from the Latin ‘terrere’ meaning ‘to frighten’. Of course, that meaning has evolved and, because of the involvement of politics, it can be hard, nowadays, to arrive at an agreed definition of terrorism. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

But it would be really helpful if the media, I’m thinking primarily about the UK though I suspect it is similar in other countries, would go back to the original definition and realise that overblowing stories because they can scare people and scared people buy more newspapers is an act of terrorism.

Some of Sunday’s papers carried a story about the threat to UK food from Al Qaeda. The story is based on comments said to have been made when ‘An official from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure spoke at a meeting of food safety experts’. This official is quoted as saying , 'Now it [the UK] has to consider the possibility of food supplies being disrupted by politically motivated groups.'

The news stories take that comment and come up with ‘The dairy industry is one of the biggest markets at risk because just a few grams of ricin in a tanker could kill thousands of people’.

Ricinus communis fruits

Somewhere I’ve got a calculation of how much ricin you would need to launch a widespread attack via food and it is not ‘a few grams’. The same document (I wish I had a better ordered filing system or brain) estimates the effects and shows that mortality would be very small and there would not be that many people getting ill. In other words, it would take a major effort by a large well-organised and well-financed group to achieve limited impact. The sad and simple fact is that there are plenty of better weapons for terrorists than ricin.

The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure produced a 31 page booklet in 2010 entitled ‘Defending food and drink’. This gives detailed information on the possible threats and the protective action to be taken as well as including a number of actual case studies. The word ‘ricin’ does not appear anywhere.

But, paradoxically, ricin is one of the best terrorism weapons because the media can be relied on to spread fear, ‘terrere’, at every opportunity by bringing in mention of ricin.