Monday, December 2, 2013

Medical Mondays: Scent of a Poison

This is not about Dior's perfume.

Did you know that certain poisons have particular scents? Next time you need to write a poisoning scene, keep these in mind!

Fruity: Acetone (not in the concentrations you find in nail polish remover) has a slightly fruity odor.
What poisons ingested by a person would cause this smell: isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), ethanol (drinking alcohol), salicylates, and chloroform.
When you might have smelled it: Diabetics who have very high blood glucose levels produce a lot of acetone in their system and may smell like this. People on ketogenic diets (like the Atkins diet) may produce this scent. Also, it's a characteristic odor carried by someone who's intoxicated from alcohol.

Bitter Almonds: Cyanide. This is a classic description of the smell of cyanide gas and is a trope in murder scenes. Keep in mind that some cyanide gases are odorless. And about a third of the population is incapable of smelling it anyway. It's a genetic thing. And finally, before you write this into your story, remember that in order to sniff this scent on someone who was poisoned, there's have to be a LOT of cyanide in the air, which would be unlikely in surreptitious poisonings, FYI.
Oh geez. Does that mean my almonds are poisoned? No! Almonds consumed today are the "sweet" variety, which have no cyanide. The "bitter" variety does in fact contain about 4-9 mg of cyanide per nut, but they are not used as food.

Garlic: arsenic, organophosphates (used as insecticides, herbicides, and weapons of mass destruction), thallium (used to be used in stress tests), selenium, and phosphorus, and zinc phosphide (which is used as a rodenticide. Apparently it attracts rodents but turns off birds, dogs, cats, etc.)

Mothballs: paradichlorobenzene, naphthalene, camphor. All three are used in making mothballs. I made paradichlorobenzene in organic chemistry lab. Fun times! Camphor is what gives that cooling sensation in Vicks VapoRub and cooling gels. It's poisonous in large doses.

Kerosene: organophosphates, parathion (insecticides and acaricides--that's something that kills spiders and mites). Does anyone younger than age 25 even know what kerosene smells like? We used to have a kerosene heater at my house when I was a kid. It scared me witless.

Freshly Mown Hay: Ah, lovely scent. Too bad it's a sign of phosgene poisoning (a chemical weapon used in World War I)

Rotten Eggs: Hydrogen sulfide. Poisonous, corrosive, flammable and explosive. Basically, it's HELL. Also implicated as a cause of the Permian-Triassic extinction about 250 million years ago. Eep.

Wintergreen, or minty: Methyl Salicylate. I did a Medical Mondays on this one: (Wintergreen Party Tricks, Poison, and Ben Gay!)

Shoe Polish: Nitrobenzene. A compound that smells sort of nice and almost almond-y, used to mask bad odors in shoe polish, solvents, and floor polish. Highly toxic to the nervous system, absorbed through the skin, and a potent carcinogen.

Peanuts: Vacor, a rodenticide. Also goes by pyrinuron, and is no longer used in the US. Interestingly, it can kill insulin producing cells in the pancreas and cause Type I Diabetes.

Pear: Chloral hydrate, once used as a sedative gas. Some say it smells fruity, other describe it as "pungent."Still used a common chemical lab reagent.

Carrot or Parsnip: Water hemlock. The root and the oily liquid from it has this characteristic smell, which is no surprise since it's related to carrots. It's highly poisonous.

Disinfectant: Phenols and cresols. These compounds are found in a lot of places, like antiseptic throat sprays, Scotch Whisky, Sharpie markers, and Lysol spray. Here's a fun article, if you've time for it: "Why Does Scotch smell like Bandaids?" Phenols are corrosive and can cause burns and dermatitis.

Well, this post makes me want to sneeze. Here are some references, if you'd like to read on:

Oh, and a huge shout-out to my old friend Dr. Wasserman, who pointed out on FB that the esteemed head Dr. Lewis Goldfrank--as in the renowned Goldfrank's Toxicologic Emergencies) made a "Sniffing Bar" to help ER residents associate scents with certain toxic chemicals. Here is the PDF of the published study. So cool! (And, no, they didn't actually sniff real toxins, only smell-alike, safe substances.)

Have a great Monday and Happy December! Don't let this post turn you off from ordering that almond-milk mochachino!


A Lady's Life said...

Oh gosh Vicks Vapor rub?

Old Kitty said...

One of my most fave films, "The Girl who lives down the lane" has this fab scene where jodie foster serves almond cookies to her victim (martin sheen of all people!!!). Of course it's laced with cyanide!! That's how I know about almonds and cyanide! LOL! Take care

Natalie Aguirre said...

Wow! Can't believe how much you know. And don't forget you're at Literary Rambles today.

Shelly said...

Gulp...I'll never trust my almonds again.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Wow, that's a lot!
Cyanide in nuts. Scary thought.

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Fascinating info!

S.A. Larsenッ said...

This is a fabulous writer's post! I'm sharing it and also bookmarking it. Thanks so much!

Bathwater said...

I always love the information. You don't need to be a writer to appreciate the info.

Jenny Woolf said...

Ooh, thanks for these ideas for bumping off unwanted characters :)

Barbara Watson said...

The one thing about smell that continually amazes me is how the scents bring back certain memories.

mooderino said...

Very useful reference guide. Thanks.

Moody Writing

Connie Keller said...

Absolutely fascinating! Thanks.

Ruth Schiffmann said...

Hmmm. No plans at present to have my characters poisoning one another, but one never knows. . .
Thanks for the interesting post.

J E Oneil said...

I knew about cyanide and arsenic, but it's good to know about the others. Just in case.

The "freshly mown hay" of phosgene gives me the creeps, I have to admit. It will make a good plot point in a story someday.

Author Kat de Falla said...

Your blog makes me happy! I LOVE coming somewhere where I ALWAYS learn something new. As a pharmacist - this might be one of fav posts EVER - freshly mowed hay - good one! Thanks for all the effort you put into these fab posts!!!

Kelly Polark said...

I bet the Sniffing Bar did help students remember the info more easily by actually inhaling a similar scent. Good mental association!

Catherine Stine said...

Your medical posts are always great. The smell of mothballs is particularly heinous to me, so it's no surprise that it is also a poisonous scent.

Unknown said...

Brilliant breakdown right there. It might seem slight, but this can completely help in investigations. We sometimes have no idea how the slightest quirks around us can lead to far-reaching conclusions. Though there needs to be a learned second opinion to process all of these properly.

Phoenix said...

This is fascinating info! I'll definitely be on the lookout (smellout?) for these when I'm around spies and other unsavory characters :)

Hugs and happy holidays to you!

Unknown said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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