Saturday night while channel surfing, my partner-in-crime and I settled on ‘Untold Stories of the E.R.” on the Discovery Channel. This particular episode was striking because it was a parent’s worst nightmare:
The one where your child’s birthday party lands almost everyone at the party in the emergency room near death.
With very limited information, as anyone that was admitted didn’t have any real explanation as to what might have caused this, the ER physician was stumped.
Everyone was throwing up, ill, looking near death.
The birthday boy started experiencing asthma attacks.
The physician sent the father, who was unable to attend the party, back home to see what he can find. Instead of bringing something useful, he hiney was rushed back to the hospital in an ambulance to and for immediate admittance.
What is going on here?
The only piece of information she kept hearing was everyone’s raving about Grandma’s infamous ‘stew’. With some quick thinking from the physician, she asked the paramedic to return to the home and bring the concoction that they kept referencing and the trash bin to see if she can pinpoint a cause.
Once the paramedics returned with the goods they poke around and she notices a suspicious leaf in the trash bin.
After confirming with Poison Control, it turned out to be wild tobacco which led to her diagnosis of:
Here’s a clip of the show, pardon the poor quality.
I always enjoy the acting. Amusing.
According to the Center for Poison Control and Prevention, nicotine poisoning symptoms include :
EFFECTS OF SHORT-TERM (LESS THAN 8-HOURS) EXPOSURE: At low concentrations, nicotine causes tremor and increases in heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and level of alertness. More severe exposures cause muscle fasciculations (involuntary twitching), seizures, and abnormal heart rhythms; these effects are followed by multi-system organ depression including slow heart rate (bradycardia), low blood pressure (hypotension), and paralysis of the muscles that control breathing. Vomiting occurs in more then 50% of symptomatic patient/victims. Death may occur, and is typically due to paralysis of the muscles that control breathing, a build-up of fluid in the airways (bronchorrhea), and failure of the heart and blood vessels (cardiovascular collapse).
Here’s where it caught my attention:
Nicotine poisoning can be accompanied by neuromuscular weakness and/or paralysis.
We have all heard of the negative side effects of nicotine, like: cancer, loss of lung function, heart attacks/strokes, death.
The usual… but I didn’t realize poisoning can lead to paralysis of the muscles.
According to the episode, nicotine starts as a stimulant EXCEPT when ingested in which it quickly becomes a neuromusclular inhibitor that can lead to paralysis.
Losing the capacity to control your muscles is kind of a BIG, scary ordeal. We’ll go over how it does this but first, let’s start with an overview of the subject matter.
.:What is nicotine?:.
Nicotine is a naturally occurring toxic chemical found in tobacco plants. It is named after the tobacco plant Nicotiana tabacum, which is named after the French ambassador in Portugal, Jean Nicot de Villemain. He sent tobacco and seeds to the French King in Paris in 1560 for medicinal use since it was believed to protect against illnesses, particularly the plague .
Historically, it was used in the United States as an insecticide and fungicide. Nicotine is prohibited as a pesticide for organic farming in the United States and the EPA no longer registers nicotine pesticides. Its decline in use was also due to there being cheaper, less harmful pesticides on the market since nicotine pesticides were potent due to their effects on the nervous system of mammals.
.:Nicotine in the Brain:.
Nicotine is an imposter that resembles the chemical structure of a neurotransmitter chemical called Acetylcholine. Acetylcholine functions as a neuromodulator in both the peripheral nervous system and central nervous system. It activates muscles and is the major neurotransmitter in the autonomic nervous system (you know the system responsible for the automation of processes we’re not fully aware of such as our heart beat, digestion, and breathing among other critical things).
While it acts like a neurotransmitter, it isn’t, and it bypasses all sensory centers thereby directly releasing neurotransmitters which produces instant gratification. It elicits the release of other neurotransmitters (like Dopamine) in the brain that affect mood, appetite, and memory while speeding up respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
Nicotine is an agonist (“binds and activates”) at the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, which are present in the central and autonomic nervous system and the neuromuscular junction.
These receptors are not only located in the brain, but in the muscles, adrenal glands, heart, and other peripheral nervous systems. These receptors are responsible for a great deal of our bodily functions like muscle movement, breathing, and learning and memory.
This is why paralysis occurs, since nicotine acts like acetycholine it binds and activates its receptors, which control a vast array of muscles in our bodies, but in high doses instead of stimulating it inhibits preventing movement.
Nicotine poisoning is caused by excessive stimulation of nicotinic cholinergic (the primary component of acetycholine) neurons. Low doses of nicotine stimulates these receptors however, large doses produce an inhibitory effect leading to neuromuscular blocking .
Nicotine poisoning can affect the nervous system and heart in two phases: the early phase which involves stimulation/excitation that can occur within 15 minutes to one hour of exposure, and the late phase which produces inhibition/depression that can occur within 30 minutes to four hours of exposure .
Lethal doses have been it projected to be at 500 to 1000 mg, with about 0.5-1 mg/kg for adults and 0.1 mg/kg for children. Nicotine has a half life of 6-8 hours and reaches the brain in less than eight seconds after entering the bloodstream .
Thinking of growing your own stuff?
In the show, the grandmother picked the leaves herself and added them to the stew.
Bad call grandma!
Smoking ‘natural’ tobacco exposes you to the most deadly carcinogens, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, such as benzene since there is a lack of filter. Homegrown tobacco, particularly when burned, has more than 40 carcinogens that are more harmful than the additives in cigarettes themselves .
Harvesting these plants yourself poses great danger as the nicotine you absorb is actually a deadly pesticide.
[… Refer to earlier statement of it being used as a pesticide..]
Direct exposure to wet tobacco leaves can cause Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS), a type of nicotine poisoning caused by skin exposure to wet tobacco leaves . When the leaves of tobacco plants are wet they excrete nicotine, which allows for for direct absorption of the skin and easier entry to the bloodstream. Symptoms include dizziness, vomiting, difficulty breathing and heart rate fluctuations. Essentially, it can make you feel like you’re going to die.
None of this sounds awesome to me. Granted, the grandmother was unaware that she was poisoning her family and friends with tobacco leaves. Which brings me to three important realizations:
1) If I wasn’t already aware, If I’m not 100 on what it is, it is preferable to leave it be.
2) Most importantly, don’t add it into food I intend to serve others.
3) I need to start learning to identify poisonous leaves.
The third one is particularly important since you never know when you MAY want to engage in number two for someone extra special and pretend you overlooked number one.
Enjoy your weekend everyone! ;)