Weekly Web Review in Toxicology #3

April 14, 2013, 12:20 pm

Was Pablo Neruda poisoned: The journal Nature posted an article asking whether, at this late date, science is capable of determining whether the Nobel-prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was poisoned.

Neruda’s death in 1973 occurred less than 2 weeks after a coup d’etat in Chile deposed Socialist President Salvador Allende and installed a right-wing dictatorship led by Augusto Pinohcet. The death was officially attributed to prostate cancer at the time, but recent allegations have raised the possibility of poisoning.

This week, Neruda’s remains were exhumed for testing. Nature’correspondent, Michele Catanzaro, points out that after the passage of so much time, there are many potential causes of false negative and false positive toxicology results.

Another on-going, high-profile forensic toxicology investigation is looking into whether the President of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, was killed with radioactive polonium in 2004.


Are Adderall and Ritalin contributing to increased rates of post-traumatic stress order in the military? In an intriguing but speculative op-ed piece in the New York Times, psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman notes that in the last decade, the number of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan diagnosed with PTSD has skyrocketed, as has the number of prescriptions for Adderall and Ritalin written for active-duty service members. As he points out:

Stimulants are widely used in the civilian population to treat attention deficit hyperactivity dossier because they increase focus and attention. Short of an unlikely epidemic of that disorder amount out soldiers, the military almost certainly uses the stimulants to help fatigued and sleep-deprived troops stay alert and awake.

Friedman hypothesizes that:

Because norepinephrine enhances emotional memory, a soldier taking stimulant medication, which releases norepinephrine in the brain, could be at higher risk of becoming fear-conditioned and getting PTSD in the setting of trauma.


The Chemistry of the Murder Mystery: In the 3rd part of her series on toxicology in mystery novels, Deborah Blum discusses the use of arsenic as a murder weapon in a short story by Dashiell Hammett — the author of The Maltese Falcon and other classic crime novels. Blum recalls a real case of attempted arsenic poisoning in the 1880s:

The first of those famous fly paper killings I mentioned involved an American woman, Florence Maybrick, accused of killing her British husband by soaking fly paper and pouring the resulting liquid into his meals.

Fascinating stuff!

Travels in the New Psychedelic Bazaar: I can’t really recommend Vanessa Grigoriadis’s article on synthetic designer drugs in New York magazine. It relies too much on anecdote, and does not, in my view, emphasize enough the dangers of using these unregulated and poorly understood chemicals.

Poisons and Opera: Carolyn Johnson, a science reporter at the Boston Globe, posted a column about the use of poisons in the plots of operas and operettas. Her piece was inspired by a recent article by Portuguese chemistry professor João Paulo André in the Journal of Chemical Education. André lists many operas I wasn’t familiar with, such as Joseph Haydn’s Der Apoathekerbut amazingly doesn’t mention at Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, which contains what TPR firmly believes is the greatest tox scene in the history of musical theater:

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