ChemNote: Thallium Poisoning


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Why is Thallium the Poison of Choice for Poisoners and
Terrorists? (Relevance to Today's Middle East)

Thallium salts offer poisoners several advantages as poisons:

  1. Thallium and its salts are HIGHLY TOXIC (the LD50 of Thallium Sulfate is 16 mg/Kg),
  2. Thallium and its salts have NO TASTE,
  3. Thallium salts have NO COLOR,
  4. Thallium and its salts have NO SMELL,
  5. Thallium DOES NOT CHANGE FOOD’S TEXTURE,
  6. Thallium salts toxicity shows up very RAPIDLY IN VICTIMS, and,
  7. Thallium salts SIMULTANEOUSLY DAMAGES SEVERAL body functions,

Thallium Sulfate:

  1. Is READILY AVAILABLE (Used in the manufacturing of electronic parts and heavy optical glass as well as in certain rat poisons),
  2. Is LOW COST, and,
  3. Very small quantities are lethal and therefor doses are EASY TO TRANSPORT, CONCEAL AND MIX with food without raising suspicion.

To put things in perspective, if a 62 kg person ingests a single gram, (1 gram), of thallium sulfate, he/she has a 50/50 chance of dying in three days unless treated. Now, consider how easy it is to add one gram of material to your food – it is even easier in the case of thallium sulfate since it is significantly denser than water and occupies a much smaller volume than one gram of water. A single teaspoon of Thallium Sulfate contains approximately 33.8 grams – enough material to kill about 34 people in three days! A quantity of 15-20 kg of Thallium Sulfate is sufficient to kill 15,000-20,000 HEALTHY adults, more than 40,000 young children and between 25,000 and 35,000 elderly people with weakened health.

Saddam Hussein's secret police, the Mukhabarat, used thallium sulfate to kill enemies of the regime. It is also believed that thallium was used by the KGB and the CIA to eliminate opponents during the cold war. In January 2008, two families were poisoned in Baghdad eating cake laced with thallium sulfate, believed to be taken from residues of Saddam’s stockpile. Four people died and ten were sickened. Moreover, the survivors continue to suffer from a variety of illnesses since, once poisoned, traces of thallium will remain in the body for a long timei.

What are the Symptoms of Thallium Poisoning?

Thallium has different toxic effects, some symptoms are observed very soon after exposure and others may appear days or weeks after exposure. Some are associated with ingesting large doses and others will be visible even with small doses.

Exposure to small doses of thallium has different toxic effects then large doses. Large doses cause severe pain in the legs and arms and affect the heart, nervous system and stomach. Vomiting, diarrhea and severe stomach aches are observed. The nerve ends are strongly affected and give a burning sensation as if walking on hot coal. Irregularities in the pulse and loss of control on urine and bowel movements may occur along with extreme pain when urinating. People may die a very painful death, often due to heart failure. Small amounts of thallium cause loss of hair and larger doses and/or repetitive ingestion of small doses also impacts the nails and the teeth. Extended exposure to small doses affects the nervous system and the heart.

Why is Thallium Toxic?

The toxicity of thallium is mainly due to the fact that the mono-valent thallium ion Tl+1 has many properties which are very similar to the common ions potassium, K+1 and sodium Na+1. Since the size of the thallium ion is very close to that of the potassium ion, certain biochemical mechanisms in the body cannot distinguish between the two, and incorporate thallium instead of potassium when available. Thus, biochemical mechanisms which require potassium ions, such as certain transmission of nervous messages, cannot be performed when thallium is incorporated instead of potassium.

Thallium can penetrate into the body through the skin, the lungs or when eaten with food. The water soluble salts of thallium, such as thallium sulfate, are the most toxic and the ones which most rapidly cause physiological damage. Thallium oxide, sulfide and metallic thallium are still very toxic but much less toxic than soluble thallium salts. Moreover, poisoning due to water soluble, ionic thallium is expressed very shortly after the ingestion or absorption of soluble thallium ions through the skin. Therefore, water soluble thallium salts, mainly the sulfate, have been used as rat and ant poisons in many countries. While their use in this application was banned in the USA and in many other countries in 1975, it is still available in old formulations. Some countries still allow its use as rat and ant poison.

Detection and Analysis of Thallium in Food and Water

It is very difficult to uniquely identify thallium in food, drink and bodily fluids. Many of the properties of the mono-valent thallium ion, Tl+1, are very similar to that of the commonly-present sodium and potassium ions, Na+1 and K+1 respectively, making identification without a sophisticated instrumental chemical laboratory very difficult. The only field technique to identify thallium ions in food that the author is aware of is the HM detection card marketed by ChemSee.com. This detection technique uses specific microencapsulated reagents that form grey-black color in contact with thallium ions but do not react with potassium or sodium ions (Patent Pending).

Example Test Results for Thallium:

These detection methods have been used to detect thallium in numerous foods common in the Middle East including: hummus, baba ganoush, labna, tabouli, okra (bamia), majandra and others.

Treating Victims of Thallium Poisoning

Several materials can be used to reduce the retention of thallium in the body after exposure. The most known material is Prussian Blue. However, Prussian Blue is also toxic and should be administered only under medical supervision. About 500 mg/day is deemed safe and effectiveii but doses of up to 20 grams/day were used to treat severe cases of poisoning in otherwise healthy adults. This can be highly important when administering treatment shortly after the poisoning occurs. THIS HYPOTHESIS WAS NOT TESTED HOWEVER. We recommend the use of Prussian Blue made fresh by mixing reagents that form it right before use.

Countering the Threat of Thallium Poisoning - Are You Ready?

Not all the thallium sulfate that was stockpiled by Saddam Hussein has been accounted for. Suppose that 15-20 kg of this thallium sulfate falls into the wrong hands, people who may be interested in using it to poison Heads of State and dignitaries within the Persian Gulf. The current conditions in this region are tense and various groups are looking for different and creative ways to achieve their goals.

Are the local Heads of State and security forces
prepared to address this problem?

In times where various groups try to seize power, one never knows what means people may use to achieve their goals.

Thus, extra vigilance is called for when
purchasing food and testing it for poison.

Attempts to poison with thallium sulfate-based poisons as well as with arsenic or cyanide may occur any day in Iraq and surrounding countries. This issue is particularly relevant to nearby countries including Syria, Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Oman, and even Libya and Iran.

Only SYSTEMATIC, COMPREHENSIVE TESTING and RAPID TREATMENT
can adequately address the dangers of thallium poisoning.

It is recommended that foods that can be shipped without spoiling rapidly be thoroughly tested for thallium. Such foods include cakes (kikai), sambusak, various babah (pastries stuffed with dates) and hard cheeses (jeban). Do not forget to check the salt (meleh) and pepper (felfal) in dispensers.

 


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