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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 20th October 2012

I’ve been watching the latest incarnation of BBC TV’s ‘Something Farm’ franchise. We’ve had ‘Victorian Farm’ and ‘Edwardian Farm’ and the current series is ‘Wartime Farm’. There have been some changes in format for this in that, instead of the three presenters going through a single year for the time concerned, each programme looks at one year in the sequence 1939-1945 to see how the progress of World War II affected the demands made on farmers.

Another change is that the net is being cast a little further to bring in issues related to food during wartime that are not directly relevant to a small English farm. The latest edition looked at the situation for civilians in Germany from 1944 once Germany began to lose the war and supplies became difficult to obtain.

An historian specialising in this time appeared to show how German housewives would make bread using grass because they could not obtain the normal ingredients. With no yeast available, the only ways to get bread to rise were to use partially fermented silage that was still producing gases and small amounts of fermented rye. Just in passing, the expert noted that to make rye ferment it has to be damp and damp rye is the perfect environment for Claviceps purpurea, ergot fungus.

Though this was just a passing reference to the possible effects of eating ergot infected bread, it did set me wondering if there is anything to show that such cases may have occurred. I have to own up to having only done some quick, limited research and I have not tried to see if there is anything in German on this topic. That said, I haven’t found any breakdown of how civilians died in Germany in 1944 or 1945 but I’m not really surprised.

The huge number of civilian deaths in those years, at a time when Germany was ceasing to function, almost certainly means that little attention was paid to individual deaths. If you think about the politics of the situation, the authorities would be unlikely to look for any reason, other than enemy action, for civilian deaths. In wartime, no government is going to shout about people dying of starvation or diseases resulting from contaminated food or water.

So, it may be that people died of ergot poisoning but it seems unlikely that anyone could ever demonstrate that beyond doubt. That thought reminded me of the other instances where Claviceps purpurea has been suggested as an explanation for an historical event. On the ergot page in the A to Z section I mention the outbreak of witchcraft in Salem and the story of the ‘Mary Celeste’ and 20th July 2011 I have blogged about the 16th century ‘Dancing Plague’ in Strasbourg. Ergot has been offered as a possible contributor to all these events and numerous pieces have been written supporting or debunking such theories.

It shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t know what has caused suffering and death in the past and, especially, in wartime but that couldn’t happen today in peacetime, could it? Two stories from widely separated areas demonstrate that it most certainly could.

Stories about large-scale outbreaks of kidney disease from Central America1 and Sri Lanka2 are, finally, beginning to draw attention to a problem that, it is thought, has caused thousands of deaths in these areas.

Though researchers are working to try and see what common factors may explain the problems the position, it seems, is complex. Some people suspect that pesticides being used on sugar cane crops are not being dealt with safely leading to human exposure but enough people who haven’t been directly involved with these chemicals have fallen ill to suggest that this is not the complete answer.

It has also been suggested that many agricultural workers put in very long hours in high temperatures without access to liquids so dehydration may be leading to the disease but, again, not everyone who has fallen ill fits that profile.

Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort

Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort

The last large scale outbreak of kidney failure affecting farmers and farm-workers was the condition initially described as Balkan endemic nephropathy (BEN) that was shown to be the result of Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort, growing amongst the wheat being produced for self-consumption. Both the latest outbreaks affect areas growing sugar cane which, of course, is processed and sold on rather than consumed by its growers so it is unlikely that any member of the Aristolochia genus has a role.

BEN (now called aristolochic acid nephropathy (AAN)) went unnoticed for some time because it first appeared in large numbers in the immediate post-war period in countries with limited infrastructure. I suppose the same situation could be said to apply in Nicaragua and Sri Lanka but it is disappointing to find that, even in the 21st century, thousands of people have died and continue to die without the issue becoming a major health priority for the world.


1. Chronic kidney disease: 'Silent killer' may have multiple triggers Open Channel on NBCNews 15th October 2012
2. Kidney Disease in Sri Lanka Linked to Pesticides ENews Park Forest 18th October 2012


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