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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 23rd December 2013

I had two separate subjects that I was thinking of writing about but couldn’t decide which would provide the better piece. Then, as often seems to happen, the two came together in a way that surprised me and led me to indulging in a bit of speculation.

The first was this piece about the money being wasted on vitamin supplements, the way they are marketed as ‘natural’ and, therefore, good and the harm that has arisen from vitamin overdoses.

Here’s what I wrote about the word ‘natural’ in June this year;

‘In the plant world, of course, the tag becomes ‘natural’. A natural plant or herb extract MUST be better. ‘Natural’ plant extracts, of course, includes aristolochic acid, coniine, strychnine, hyoscine, nicotine, ricin – you get the picture.’

It would be nice to think that people had got that ‘natural’ is not a synonym for ‘safe’, ‘good’ or ‘useful’ but knowing that won’t be the case it is worth pointing it out at irregular intervals.

There was another point. That ‘Discovery’ piece cites this New York Times story that includes the claim;

‘Dietary supplements account for nearly 20 percent of drug-related liver injuries that turn up in hospitals, up from 7 percent a decade ago, according to an analysis by a national network of liver specialists.’

I can’t verify that figure and, of course, it doesn’t say what percentage of liver injuries is drug-related and whether it counts alcohol as a drug in this context (I doubt that it does). So, for now, let’s just leave it that supplement overdose has caused liver problems for some people and move on to the second subject.

The middle of winter is not the time I’d expect to be writing about Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, but someone sent me the text of a piece written by Robin Page, the Telegraph’s country correspondent.

It is a master class in how to distort an argument. You’ve got strawmen like suggesting that people such as me claim ragwort is not poisonous. I always make sure to stress that ragwort is poisonous but there is a difference between being poisonous and being harmful.

There’s anecdote offered as evidence. Page writes that he saw a ragwort plant with no insects on it and claims that means the arguments of those who understand its biodiversity role are false.

(Here's a short video I made of insects on common ragwort.)

Then there’s citing an alleged authority who is anything but. And there is the technique I see mostly with drug prohibitionists of ignoring evidence altogether. Page tries to create hysteria about toxic honey from ragwort by completely ignoring the 1995 work done by what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (MAFF) that found honey with a potentially harmful load of pyrrolizidine alkaloids to be completely inedible.

I’ve written many times before about the nonsense written about ragwort and noted that ragwort has been around a very long time because common ragwort is a native plant in the UK.

As if to show how long it has been around, someone sent me this poem, written in 1832 by John Clare a farm labourer and poet.

The Ragwort
Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come & litter gold,
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold,
That without thee were dreary to behold,
Sunburnt and bare-- the meadow bank, the baulk
That leads a wagon-way through mellow fields,
Rich with the tints that harvest's plenty yields,
Browns of all hues; and everywhere I walk
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright & glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
& seems but very shadows in thy sight.

There’s no mention of any concerns about the plant in that piece.

I’m not going to try and give a lesson on evolution and I’m sure it would be easy for the following over-simplification to be criticised but, in terms my simple mind can understand, all the variations of animals that didn’t find the taste of ragwort offensive died out by eating lethal amounts of it and all the variations of ragwort that weren’t overwhelming sour died out by being eaten before they could set seed.

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

The long run of evolution has brought about a situation where, in a wholly natural environment, animals don’t eat living ragwort and thus don’t get harmed by the poisons it contains.

The 180 years since Clare wrote so lovingly about ragwort is not nearly long enough for evolution to have changed the balance so, if ragwort has become more harmful, it must be something that humans have done too quickly for evolution to keep up with.

Whilst stressing (because it seems to need repeating) that liver problems in horses are not that common, certainly not in the thousands of cases claimed by some organisations and individuals, I have taken the line that, where ragwort contributes to liver damage it does so as the result of horses being fed hay containing dead (and thus tasteless) ragwort as a result of owners taking insufficient care in purchasing conserved forage for their animals.

But, today, two different topics came together and I’m going to speculate about what just might be happening. I’ll repeat that – I’m speculating, this is not a claim, it is not even a theory but just something I started to wonder about.

A quick internet search found plenty of sites promoting the use of vitamin supplements for horses but almost none where any consideration is given to the effects of overdose. I did find this book extract that does look at the effects of overdose and cites symptoms of liver failure very similar to those attributed to ragwort poisoning.

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

So, what has changed since 1832 and why has the hysteria about Jacobaea vulgaris grown during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st? That same time scale has seen the rise of the consumer society and the proliferation of sales techniques aimed at moving the maximum amount of products to the maximum number of people.

I can’t find anyone who has looked at the possible correlation between supplement feeding and liver damage. It may be that the hysteria about ragwort has blinded veterinarians from looking for other causes of liver damage.

If anyone knows of any work looking at the prior feeding of horses diagnosed with liver damage I’d love to hear about it.

Is it possible that the assumption I and others make that liver damage in horses results from lack of care is actually completely wrong and that it results from excess care with owners overdosing their animals with vitamin supplements?  


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