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PICK YOUR POISON—A SHORT GUIDE ON HOW TO NOT LET NATURE KILL YOU

Poisons, they come in all shapes and types. Be it with animals or plants, nature has a good load of surprises for us in stock, and nobody knows when to expect one—like the Spanish Inquisition. Many of said surprises are breathtakingly wonderful, others literally do take your breath away—and kill you. Either as a defense mechanism against more dangerous predators, or because they simply are said predator and it has to be this way, we’ll find plants, creatures and other elements with highly lethal substances. While it is true that we won’t find some of these silent and painful killers unless we go into the depths of the wilderness in some cases, others turn out to be very close to home.

However, before we immerse ourselves in the fantastic world of poisons and how to avoid them, let’s clear one thing up: Venomous or poisonous? Many might say these two words are synonyms, but in fact, they’re not. Something is venomous when it bites or stings you, but it’s poisonous when you bite it or eat it. So as an example, a snake would be venomous when it bites you, but you would eat a poisonous berry.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s pass on to five not so typical but extremely dangerous poisons. Are you ready?

5. Nutmeg
When I started doing my research for this article and found out nutmeg of all things was poisonous, I was astonished. Nutmeg, that thing we use as a spice, put it into cakes and other kinds of food… it turns out it’s a powerful hallucinogen. Obviously, not in the doses we use it for spicing up our sweets, but ingesting 2 grams of nutmeg will have the same effects as having taken amphetamines. Doesn’t sound that bad, you might say. Fine… In addition, you’ll also have fever, nausea and headaches. 10 grams will cause convulsions and actual hallucinations, and eating a whole nutmeg leads to “nutmeg psychosis” with feelings of impending doom, confusion and, eventually, death. For your curiosity, yes, there have been two recorded cases of death by nutmeg, one in 1908 and one in 2001. 

Nutmegs aren’t the only things that may seem harmless but turn out to have a nasty surprise with them. Almonds, acorns, apple seeds and castor beans are equally lethal if taken in a high dose.

4. Mercuric Nitrate
Have you ever wondered where the saying “mad as a hatter” comes from? Well, today you’ll get your answer! In the 1800s, mercuric nitrate was used to remove fur from animal skins, but breathing in the fumes of this toxic metal made the hatters behave irrationally, causing tremors, loss of coordination, slurred speech, memory loss or even depression—“The Mad Hatter Syndrome”. It wasn’t until 1941 that the use of mercury was banned in hat making by the US government, but even today we can still find mercury in many everyday things: paint, pesticides, batteries, fabric softeners or silver fillings, to name a few.

3. Gympie-Gympie Tree
In Australia, many things are bigger and more dangerous than in other places of the world. Or at least, that’s Australia’s fame outside of Australia. And honestly, the Gympie-Gympie tree is just proving this theory truthful. Named the world’s most dangerous tree, the Gympie-Gympie tree is known for being the most painful of all stinging plant trees. The pain after being stung is described as excruciating, as if sprayed with hot acid, and has even driven some of the affected to suicide. What’s even worse, the toxin contained in the Gympie-Gympie tree is one of the most persistent ones known to man—according to a researcher, the burning sensations can last up to two years after being stung, and the poison remains viable for up to 20 years. Terrifying, huh?

2. Spurge Laurel
Spurge Laurel may look harmless with its small, glossy leaves when it’s harmlessly sitting around in ornamental gardens and other grounds, but trust me, it is far from harmless. This plant can make you suffer one of the worst deaths the Plant Kingdom has to offer. If cut or handled carelessly, Spurge Laurel will cause blistering or irritation on your skin, but the party, so to speak, occurs on the inside. Eat only a few of berries and it will lead to internal bleeding, organ failure and imminent death within several hours. As a fun fact, some tribes have used Spurge Laurel as a drug of last resort to cure seriously infected patients, but it makes you wonder if the cure is really a cure or maybe just worse than the actual disease.

1. Red Tide Algae 
And last but not least, a phenomenon that could come straight from the Bible itself… or maybe it actually made it into the Bible. Remember that one Biblical Plague where the waters turn to blood? Well, this is a thing that actually happens, except it’s obviously not blood. There is a type of algae, the Algera Pelagius, which can turn the waters red when it multiplies after an influx of nutrients and temperature changes. Said algae is extremely neurotoxic, and what makes everything worse is that it’s rapidly absorbed by shellfish. Get in contact with the seaweed or consume the fish, and soon you’ll find your body paralyzed and your respiratory pathways obstructed. Death follows. 

The Red Tide is not only lethal for humans—entire beaches have been covered by dead seabirds and ducks that had also been exposed to the algae.

How was that for a taste of poison? You probably won’t have to worry much about getting into contact with any of these in your neighbourhood, but if you were to live in the wild, things would change. Oh, that got you interested? Then tune in to Live Free or Die to know about the hardships and adventures of those who actually do live in the wild, premiering in December on NatGeo!
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