Mail Order Suicide

June 24, 2010, 1:02 am


Attempted Suicide by Mail Order: Abrus precatorius. Jang DH et al. J Med Toxicol [published online 19 June 2010]


Seeds of the plant Abrus precatorius are decorative red-and-black beads often used for ornaments and rosaries. (Precare means “to pray”.)  They contain the toxin abrin, that causes cell death by inhibiting protein synthesis. These seeds (also called jequirity beans or Rosary peas) have a hard exterior coating, and if intact pass through the gastronintesintal tract harmlessly.  However, if chewed they can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration.

This case report describes a 20-year-old man who chewed and swallowed 10 jequirity beans he had purchased on the internet. He presented to hospital several hours later with nausea, vomiting, and watery diarrhea.  The initial diagnosis was viral gastroenteritis until a family member brought in samples of the distinctive seed. Digital pictures were sent over the internet to the New York City Poison Control Center, which identified them as Abrus precatorius.  The patient was admitted to the intensive care unit and improved with supportive care and replacement of fluids and electrolytes.

Abrin is similar in structure and toxic mechanism to the poison ricin, found in castor beans.  While this paper has a good to-the-point discussion of abrin and other toxic causes of profound diarrhea, it unfortunately repeats uncritically the (in my opinion) unsubstantiated belief that ricin could potentially be used as an effect inhalational biological weapon. TPR has previously discussed why this is unlikely.

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