Eat This

One more reason to go organic

All day people have been sending me this story about some folks in suburban Maryland who were rushed to the hospital with a suspected case of insecticide poisoning.  Seems their host served them homegrown mint he/she had sprayed with organophosphates.  The poisonous mint had been included in some potato stew.  Yum! 

Here’s what the Illinois Department of Public Health has to say about organophosphates.  Note it’s part of their bioterrorism alert.

My question:  Why would someone spray this crap on their mint?  Not to mention then serve it.

Posted by on July 9, 2008 at 3:00 pm, in the category Eat This.
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21 responses to “One more reason to go organic”

  1. Renee says:

    Hmmm. I smell lawsuit here… this was at a townhouse. Want to bet the property manager/crew had sprayed everything in sight because there were a few spots on a tree or foundation shrub?

  2. Plantanista says:

    That must have been some intense, concentrated application of an organophosphate. I wonder which one it was… Could be that a systemic application would concentrate in the leaves enough to make folks this sick, but I’m really surprised to hear that it made them sick enough to go to the hospital.

    Renee, I wonder if you’re on to something there, because to spray one’s own herb garden with an organophosphate and then serve it in a potato stew takes the horticultural version of the Darwin Award. Not to mention mint in a potato stew, though I suppose it would work with lamb. Dill would be so much better…

  3. Terry says:

    If I’m reading the same article you are, no where does it say that the mint HAD been sprayed with anything!

    According to the article, samples of the stew and leaves were taken for testing, but the results were not yet available.

    This type of reporting is similar to the front page headlines in 1992 reporting the death of drummer Jeff Porcaro from apparent pesticide poisoning. However, never reported was that an autopsy revealed a serious, undiagnosed heart condition that led to his death.

    Until test results are back, all this article is pure speculation.

  4. Plantanista says:

    Donning my Forensic Horticulturist cap again, and in no way afraid to engage in speculation of my very own…

    Indeed, Terry, it is not yet proved that the mint had been sprayed with anything. AND, it could be that the leaves were not mint at all. Could the unwitting chef have used Digitalis in the stew?

    Back to the lesser likelihood of acute organophosphate poisoning… though I do not claim to be an expert, I have learned that OPs are cholinestrase inhibitors, and chronic exposure is far more likely to be the cause of OP poisoning.

    Basically, your synapses stop firing properly and though as a result, you become addled enough to make mistakes like spraying your “mint” before serving it in a “stew”, most homeowners now do not have access to the big gun OPs that were once available. I do wonder how much Dursban is still sitting around on the shelves of home gardeners.

    And yes, this is definitely another of thousands of compelling reasons to “go organic”, if that means not spraying toxic chemicals on your condiments. Though there are plenty of opportunities to make your guests acutely ill with a plethora of “organic” options, including “natural” pyrethrins, rotenone, nicotine sprays, so going organic may not necessarily prevent you from hosting a disastrous dinner party such as the ill-fated soirée de la salade malade.

  5. greg sraiss says:

    Why would one spray anything on mint except round up or vinegar to kill it.
    Some thing is missing from the story. Also why would one report on organophospahtes w/o saying which one?

    The(can’t think of anything to put here this time) TROLL

  6. Benjamin says:

    Maybe the host didn’t like their guests? C’mon. I would do that. Maybe there was a love affair in the works….

  7. Reading Dirt says:

    I haven’t noticed my mint being particularly bug-chewed. In fact, I USE mint, rosemary, and other strong herbs to repel insects in the garden.

    While I’m opposed to cavalier use of insecticides in home gardening, and cringe when I see neurotoxins sold over the counter to get rid of “bugs,” (at a time when honeybees are in trouble), I’m thinking they’ll find out it wasn’t the mint that was the culprit.

  8. arythrina says:

    “soirée de la salade malade” *giggle*

  9. ~~melissa says:

    “Why would someone spray this crap on their mint? ”

    I’m guessing because the police would catch on if they guy simply put antifreeze in the fruit punch. (A little black humour.)

    Scary. We have a pesticide ban here (Ontario, Canada) so now I hear the hardcore sprayers are sneaking out in the dark to posion their shag carpets, er lawns.

  10. deb says:

    You know what. They can ask me to prove it over and over, but I still do not want that crap on my food.

  11. grouchylisa says:

    That had to be one helluva lot of organophosphate (OP) in the stew/on the mint to produce symptoms that acute except in individuals who were already chronically exposed to OP’s. I doubt that chronic OP exposure was the case, because the article would/should have mentioned testing the non-affected family members for it.

    I wish the article had also given more specifics on the symptoms, because the symptoms listed are also consistent with belladonna alkaloid poisoning (atropine, scopalomine, etc.) and that would be consistent with cooking potato leaves (too many of them) along with the potatoes. The symptoms listed could also be consistent with other condiment contaminants, or the excessive use of somewhat toxic condiments (nutmeg, for example).

    Okay. What I WANT to know is did the affected patients have abnormally large pupils, tiny pinpoint pupils, or normal pupils. I also want to know if they had diarrhea and stomach/intestinal cramps. Then I could make some kind of reasoned guess as to whether it was OP poisoning, the inclusion of a toxic fresh plant (aconite? potato leaves? hemlock?–and intentional or unintentional?), or the inclusion of a toxic or contaminated purchased condiment.

    I love toxicology almost as much as I love microbiology.

  12. Right on and very timely. I’m using this today, Susan (if I remember) – I’m going on the local NPR talk show with Pam Ruch of Organic Gardening, and David Goforth, an enlighted Extension Agent and the ‘go to’ guy in Charlotte in terms of info on growing healthy food. http://www.wfae.org, click on Charlotte Talks, if anybody wants to listen.

    This is part of the dedication today of our rain cistern at the Center, paid for by a WaterWorks grant from Organic Gardening Magazine. It’s a cool grant, for any community gardeners out there. But our conversation will extend beyond cisterns to organic gardening, especially growing urban food and being good stewards.

    It strikes me again, reading your post, Susan, that it is a human factors problem. Yes, those chemicals are nasty, but they are all the more dangerous because we want instant fixes, and can’t be bothered to read the instructions. Pesticides are culturally inappropriate, at least for us Merkans.

    What the heck was s/he spraying mint for, anyway????

  13. Jeff Gillman says:

    I’m a little late getting in on this conversation, but I’d like to add my opinion. First, jumping to conclusions is unwarranted — OP poisoning has not been proven — not even close.

    That said, OPs were created to kill humans — they were part of nerve gas research conducted by the Nazis (and other nations) and they are often hot as hell. Many OPs that were once available are now more or less off the market — but there are some that are super toxic and available if you search for them — one called Disyston (aka disulfoton)is highly toxic at very low doses — it’s the stuff found in those old insecticide/fertilizer spikes for roses (largely replaced by another less toxic pesticide imidicloprid). disyston is highly toxic and very very scary. It would be no surprise at all to me if someone had an old cache of this stuff and used it — Heck, I know of a person who used DDT in the last 5 years (they called me to ask if it was a good idea AFTER they applied it — brilliant).

    I’ll wait for the tox. results, but OP poisoning seems a reasonable first guess — I’m not entirely sure this provides a solid reason to go organic though — as someone above said there are plenty of natural pesticides that are dangerous — unless by organic you meant use no pesticides — I do think it provides extra incentive for people to avoid pesticides altogether — and I’m all for that.

  14. Jeff Gillman says:

    I also wanted to make one correction to something I saw above. These poisons don’t stop synapses from firing, they make it so that synapses CAN’T STOP FIRING. Basically the chemical that is released to signal a muscle to fire is prevented from breaking down — so you get continuous firing which, as you might guess, is very very bad.

  15. lawremc says:

    It will be interesting to see what the tox reports says. I can’t imagine having to spray mint for anything. If mine looks ragged, I just whack it back–give it a little compost and water and let it come back.

    Just as an aside—one of the deadliest insecticides ever used in the garden is organic—tobacco (nicotine). People used an infusion of tobacco and water for years to kill bugs. Susan Wittig Albert a mystery writer with an herb shop owner heroine once killed off someone in a short story with tea laced with nicotine.

  16. Pam J. says:

    Actually, since we’re getting all technical here, a synapse is the tiny space between nerve endings. Neurons (or nerves) communicate by sending chemical signals, called neurotransmitters, to each other across synapses. If there is a disruption in the signals firing between neurons, either too much firing or too little, problems occur.

  17. DJ Monet says:

    Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a pesticide and the person put it in the soup without thinking. I’m constantly amazed by how clueless some people are.

    But that would have to be some pesticide. So I’m skeptical of that. Maybe someone tried to poison folks and pass i off as the pesticide on their mint.

  18. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if people had a “cache” of the older, highly toxic OPs. Diazinon (sp?) went off of the market in 2004, and several people came through the small, independent garden center that I worked at in 2005 asking if we could still get them Diazinon. “Don’t you have it stashed away in the back room or something?”

    One of the gentlemen who asked this said that he already had a whole shelf-ful of the stuff that he horded away the year before, when it was still legal to buy it… but he was afraid that he hadn’t quite horded enough. Seriously. Scary.

    That said, it will be interesting to find out what actually caused this issue for the family in question. And why they would even bother spraying anything on their mint leaves.

  19. grouchylisa says:

    Neurons, synapses, receptors and ion channels! I like those things ALMOST as much as I like microbiology and toxicology. Almost.

  20. bs says:

    wow!

    this poor family. i think it’s kind of sad that we’ve politicized their pain when we don’t even have a toxicology report. and there’s no reason to believe they sprayed their own plants before they ate them. one day i went into my backyard to discover spray varnish wafting through the lattice of my neighbor’s fence all over some of my edibles. i’m glad i saw that!!

  21. Plantanista says:

    Jimson Weed, people!
    http://www.nbc4.com/news/16849591/detail.html

    This plant grows wild all over the area in which this poisoning took place. Not to downplay the hazards of pesticides, but I knew that this was not caused by an OP sprayed on the leaves.

    One man’s mint is another man’s seven days of dementia.

    But seriously, this could have ben fatal, and in the one case of Jimson Weed poisoning I know of, the guy who took it (on purpose!, multiple times!) never really recovered, and ended up in a locked ward.

    So I hope that the people who ate the stew all recover completely with no lasting damage to their organs or minds.

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