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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 7th April 2012

Young people have always been inclined to take risks for excitement and those risks have always had a fashionable element to them. When I was a child, roller-skating holding onto the back of a bus or lorry was one that lots of children tried. Like a lot of fashions, it comes around from time to time as this story from 2000 (long after I ceased to be a child) shows.

I suppose you’d have to concede that, like all information, ideas for the latest craze spread faster today than was the case forty or more years ago but that doesn’t necessarily make them more dangerous.

The current craze seems to be what is called the ‘cinnamon challenge’. It even has its own website, though I won’t link to it. The idea is to eat a tablespoon of cinnamon within sixty seconds without having anything to drink. The task is difficult because the cinnamon dries the mouth and leads to difficulty swallowing and, often, a coughing fit or gagging and vomiting. It is also said to produce a burning sensation in the mouth and throat that many people find very unpleasant. The cinnamon dust expelled by coughing may be inhaled and can cause blockage of the lungs and airways.

Cinnamon is a powder made from the bark of trees in the Cinnamomum genus. It is said to contain a toxic component but the problems caused by the cinnamon challenge are mechanical rather than toxicological.

As with all such fashions, warnings are starting to appear and the more hysterical of them would have you think that an entire generation was about to wipe itself out seeking the fame of a highly viewed YouTube video.

It reminded me of the situation regarding another spice, sage, a couple of years ago. When we were looking at plants to include in the 2005 replanting of the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden an example of the Salvia genus was suggested but, given that the idea was to beef up the potential harm of the plants in the garden, it was agreed that its potential for harm arising from its psychoactive properties was not that great and its use as a foodstuff might lead to confusion.

When I visited the garden, a couple of years after leaving, I was surprised to find that not only had a Salvia plant been added to the collection but it had been planted in one of the metal cages in order, I was told, to draw attention to how dangerous it is. That seemed to me a bit of an overstatement. Generally, the substances that can lead to harm are those used for a long period and because salvia produces only a short-term effect with substantial loss of motor co-ordination it is not a substance that many people take more than once.

My view was that salvia would be very much a passing fashion and would not lead to major harm to young people. And that seems to be the case. Using YouTube’s ‘see today’s uploads’ filter I found 1,090 results for the search term ‘cinnamon’ and 22 for ‘salvia’. Removing the filter gives three times as many total results for ‘cinnamon’ as for ‘salvia’ so, it seems, salvia never was that big a fashion.

Young people who were well aware that salvia was a once in a lifetime experience, if that, would have seen the hysteria about it as another example of how out of touch the adult world is and how untrustworthy drugs education from adults is likely to be.


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