The 6th Annual Alexander Awards: The Best Tox Reading of 2015
December 31, 2015, 6:55 pm
At the end of every year, TPR bestows the coveted Alexander Awards on the best long-form writing on toxicology topics that have appeared in the popular press during the preceding 12 months. To be eligible, an article must be open-access and freely available, not locked behind some paywall. The awards were named for Alexander Gettler (1883-1968,) the head of toxicology for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on the City of New York during the first half of the 20th century. Gettler has been called the “father of forensic toxicology in America.” His work was vividly described in Deborah Blum’s fascinating book The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.
This year, a very hot topic covered by popular media was that of the skyrocketing use of synthetic cannabinoids. Steve Featherstone’s article ‘Spike Nation’ in the New York Times Magazine describes how “spike” (i.e., “Spice” or synthetic cannabinoids) has affected the poor and homeless population of Syracuse, New York:
“They [spike users] aren’t curious teenagers dabbling in what they thought was a legal high dispensed from a head shop. They’re broke, often homeless. Many have psychiatric problems. . . . Doctors could tell me what happened when people overdosed on spike, but they couldn’t tell me why anyone would smoke it in the first place, given the possible consequences.”
Those consequences often included “seizures, extreme swings in heart rate and blood pressure, kidney and respiratory failure, [and] hallucinations.”
A complementary read is Allie Conti’s ‘How Synthetic Weed is Ravaging Brooklyn’s Homeless Population” on vice.com. The title is self-explanatory. The author compares the situation in Brooklyn to that in Syracuse:
” . . . one day this spring, the city of Syracuse, in upstate New York, saw 19 overdoses, ‘more in one day in Syracuse than the number of overdoses reported statewide in most states for all of April.’ But on a randomly picked Sunday — June 27 — there were more than a dozen calls related to K2 [spike] from a single homeless shelter in Brooklyn . . .”
A similar story in the Austin (TX) American-Stateman limns the problem with synthetic cannabinoids in the Texas capital. All three articles are worth reading.
The other big topic in toxicology this year has been, of course, the continuing epidemic of addiction to synthetic opioids and heroin. The Boston Globe’s Katie Johnston followed a heroin addict in the East Boston area for a year to describe the tragedy of “A Life Unraveling.” And in a New York Times “Sunday Review” piece, Sam Quinones — author of Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic — explains how dealers from the Mexican county of Xalisco have established a very efficient, non-violent, low profile drug delivery system that “resembles pizza delivery” and could go by the slogan “Serving All Your Heroin Needs.”
In The Guardian (U.K.,) Kate Griffin details two murder cases from Victorian England involving poisoning with arsenic. She points out that the rise of the life insurance industry coincided with an increase in arsenic poisonings, and that the development of the Marsh test — which could detect and quantify arsenic in forensic specimens — made arsenic a much attractive means for dispatching with a rival or securing an inheritance.
Finally, in a New Yorker piece called “The Trip Planners,” Emily Witt profiles Earth and Fire Erowid, the pseudonymous couple who run Erowid.org, an extensive online “repository of drug-culture esoterica” that is widely consulted by psychedelic aficionados, medical toxicologists, and emergency practitioners alike. It turns out that the self-described “tech hippie liberals” are surprisingly straight, eschewing many drugs in favor of “an ibuprofen and a beer.” A very interesting read.