Arsenic in “Pick Yer Poison! … then let’s talk about the science behind it!”

Everyone has heard stories about scorned people getting the ultimate revenge through poisonings and just nearly getting away with it.  It’s an age old tale that is slowly fading out due to modern advances in science, but it’s a familiar one, and it always gets the best of our morbid curiosities.  The scientist in me always wants to know why a specific poison works and how.  Why is arsenic so toxic but not selenium?  I mean, they are close enough on the periodic table, right?  Let’s find out and take a closer look at some infamous poisons and investigate why they are so deadly!  Let’s begin today with arsenic and at another time we can look at other fun ones like thallium, mercury, etc.

Arsenic was the poison of choice for a good long while.  In low doses over long periods of time, it can mimic other ailments and death by arsenic poisoning can appear to be a “natural death” if no suspicions are aroused.  Then modern science came roaring in.  Nowadays a quick autopsy will reveal obvious deposits of arsenic throughout the body and any would-be discrete murderer will soon become acquainted with a jail cell (unless they leave the country immediately, in which they may have a fighting chance… just saying).  But why is arsenic so lethal?  Check out this side by side comparison of an arsenic (As) compound with that of a phosphorous (P) compound:

Image

Pretty similar.  So similar, I bet if those letters in the center were removed, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart at all!  The problem is… neither can your body.  Worse yet, phosphate is an extremely important compound used in the most basic and fundamentally necessary processes carried out in the body.  In other words, if your body did not have phosphate, it will die.

When arsenic is present in your body, it sneaks in like a secret agent and replaces phosphate with itself in the arsenate form.  Once it has been misidentified as phosphate and integrated in, the bodily functions try to take place like normal, except, arsenic can’t carry out the same tasks as phosphorus, it just looks the same, so those key processes that are vital to life can’t occur anymore.  Multiply this onto a large scale and your body is no longer able to work, resulting sadly in death.

And that’s it.  A case of mistaken identity that has tragic consequences.  The truth is always stranger than fiction.  At least in my opinion.  So if there is one thing you can learn today, it’s that it does not pay to murder with arsenic, you’ll inevitably get caught and you’ll go to prison, unless you do it exceptionally well, but that’s still more trouble than it’s worth.  Hey, I’m just telling it like it is!  Let’s be practical about this.

I think next time we should discuss thallium.  With a nickname like “the Poisoner’s Poison,” what’s not to love?  ((my curiosity knows no bounds))

Yours,

Ze Tsarina

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One comment on “Arsenic in “Pick Yer Poison! … then let’s talk about the science behind it!”

  1. Super interesting! The truth *is* always stranger than fiction, isn’t it? 🙂

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