Health and Medicine

First Aid and Poisons

What is the deadliest natural toxin?

Botulinal toxin, produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, is the most potent poison of humans. It has an estimated lethal dose in the bloodstream of 10–9 milligrams per kilogram. It causes botulism, a severe neuroparalytic disease that travels to the junctions of skeletal muscles and nerves, where it blocks the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, causing muscle weakness and paralysis, and impairing vision, speech, and swallowing. Death occurs when the respiratory muscles are paralyzed; this usually occurs during the first week of illness. Mortality from botulism is about 25 percent.

Because the bacterium can form the toxin only in the absence of oxygen, canned goods and meat products wrapped in airtight casings are potential sources of botulism. The toxin is more likely to grow in low-acid foods, such as mushrooms, peas, corn, or beans, rather than high-acid foods like tomatoes. However, some new tomato hybrids are not acidic enough to prevent the bacteria from forming the toxin. Foods being canned must be heated to a temperature high enough and for a long enough time to kill the bacteria present. Suspect food includes any canned or jarred food product with a swollen lid or can. Ironically, this dreaded toxin in tiny doses is being used to treat disorders that bring on involuntary muscle contractions, twisting, etc. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the toxin for the treatment of strabismus (misalignment of the eyes), blepharospasm (forcible closure of eyelids), and hemifacial spasm (muscular contraction on one side of the face).


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