Murder Ahoy
can you really poison someone instantly?

Note: these articles have been published in InfoChem, the supliment to Education in Chemistry produced by The Royal Society of Chemistry.
Many are based on the two BBC OU TV series - Hollywood Science

In many movies someone gets poisoned and you see them die almost instantly. Could that really happen; could a poison really kill someone so quickly?

We all know that poisons exist. Everyone knows that drinking a litre of strong sulphuric or nitric acid would not do you much good! Common examples of poisons are some varieties of mushroom and the plant Deadly Nightshade. Even rhubarb has to be treated with respect as the leaves and other parts of the plant are rich in oxalic acid which is poisonous.

In the news recently reporters suggested that Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned after a polonium-210 compound was slipped into his drink [1]. Polonium is a very active alpha emitter and when ingested this radiation would damage essential organs leading to a very painful and slow death (three weeks in his case). Yet even something apparently as 'powerful' as this is slow to respond - it doesn't kill instantly.

However there are some poisons that will kill very quickly: In the South American Amazon indigenous people use poisonous arrow tips to hunt animals [2]. They make a paste from a local plant which contains a poison called curare. Once in the bloodstream it acts on the animal's respiration system causing asphyxiation within minutes. However the homemade paste is impure so quite large quantities are required. To overcome this, rather than simply painting the poison on, they cut long grooves into the arrow tips which are filled with the poisonous paste. As a result of this more poison enters the unfortunate animal and, because of the grooves, the poison does not get wiped off as it pierces the skin. This is a good poison for hunters as the curare is only effective when introduced via a cut or wound; not when eaten. They can therefore eat the kill without being killed themselves.

Of course in the movies things are not always presented as they should be. For example in the TV series Heroes, Sylar was drugged with a curare-laced drink [3]. As we now know, however, this poison is only effective when entering the body through a wound, or injected, so in fact Sylar should not have been affected.

In another example the film 'Murder Ahoy' (Agatha Christie's Miss Marple classic) sees a woman being murdered when she injures her hand on a mouse trap coated in curare [4]. If it had happened in real life there would probably not have been nearly enough material transferred by the trap to actually kill her as much of the poison would have been wiped off as it entered her finger.

There are therefore poisons that can kill very quickly but only in certain circumstances - and not quickly enough for most Hollywood storylines!

2) Human death by Curare: Proceedings of the Hist. Anaesth. Soc. 37, 2007, pp. 99-100.
3) According to a curare web page on the Wikipedia site.
4) Murder Ahoy, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1964.

How teachers can use these articles in a lesson

Why Hollywood Science

Open University Hollywood Science web site

Call for clips - do you have a film clip that needs investigating?

Jonathan would like to thank Robert Llewellyn, Gill Watson and Harry Kroto (Vega Trust), all the BBC teams, The Royal Society of Chemistry and all at the Open University.


Dr Jonathan Hare, The University of Sussex
Brighton, East Sussex. BN1 9QJ.

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