Alleged poisoning puts `nasty' dioxin in spotlight

Science & Research

December 17, 2004|By John Jurgensen | John Jurgensen,HARTFORD COURANT

Power struggles, political intrigue and the street mettle of the Ukrainian people have kept that faraway country's election drama in the news for weeks. But it's the poisoning that most people are talking about.

Last weekend, an Austrian clinic confirmed what Viktor Yushchenko's grotesque features had long suggested: The presidential candidate had been sickened and disfigured by a toxin called dioxin. To Western readers, especially, the poisoning may seem like an outlandish plot twist ripped off from Renaissance history.

But some toxicologists and students of chemical crimes say that despite the long history of poison as a diabolical weapon, it's probably wielded more often than people think.

The use of dioxin in particular against Yushchenko, however, was a rare choice, experts say.

"This guy is in uncharted territory," says Robert Middleberg, a forensic toxicologist at National Medical Services, a bioanalytical laboratory in Pennsylvania that specializes in criminal cases.

"If he did receive it as an oral poison, he'd be one of the only cases we'd be aware of," he says. "It's not a good poison to use if you're trying to acutely kill someone. If you want to make someone sick, it's certainly a good poison."

Dioxins are a family of toxic compounds usually produced as byproducts of industrial processes. The most notorious type was discovered in Agent Orange, the defoliant used in the Vietnam War. And in the early 1980s, the U.S. government evacuated the town of Times Beach, Mo., because of the high levels of dioxin in the soil resulting from waste oil that had been sprayed on dirt roads to settle dust.

Scientists have studied the effects of human inhalation or skin exposure to dioxin, but ingestion is more mysterious. Yet Yushchenko's symptoms - especially the facial cysts, called chloracne - were the next best thing to a smoking gun.

"If it wasn't for that, nobody would look for dioxin," Middleberg says, noting that dioxin is not one of the 3,000 or so compounds (among the 22 million registered by the American Chemical Society) that his lab routinely tests for in suspected poisonings.

The peculiarity of the poisoner's choice could also lend clues to his or her identity. "When you start talking about obscure poisons like this, you have to not only know how to procure the pure material, but also how to dose it," Middleberg says. "You could do a lot of damage with 1 milligram."

Yushchenko could suffer from the effects of the crime for years to come. Dioxin does organ damage and is known to be carcinogenic.

"It's a nasty little chemical," says John H. Trestrail III, managing director of the DeVos Children's Hospital Regional Poison Center in Grand Rapids, Mich. The author of a manual on investigating criminal poisonings, he has conducted numerous workshops on the subject for the FBI.

Though the substance used in the crime against Yushchenko may be unique, to Trestrail it's just another poisoning to put on his list. More than a decade ago he started a database of intentional poisonings reported around the world. By studying the more than 1,000 cases he has documented, Trestrail has tried to make it easier to profile poisoners.

"I think when you take a look at poisoners, they fall into one or two groups," he says.

The first type is the most common: the person who wants to eliminate someone standing in the way of a goal, whether love, money or power. ("These people don't want you to ever know that poison is the cause of death," Trestrail says.)

"The other group is more like what we see in [Yushchenko's case]. They use it and really don't care if you know it or not," he says, referring to it as an attack by a "chemical sniper."

Though the earliest deciphered writings suggest a human acquaintance with poisoning, the ancient Greeks and Romans perfected the practice.

It may have been hemlock that killed Socrates, but arsenic soon became the sinister substance of choice in Europe. The metal's easy availability and its lack of color, odor and taste in food made it a favorite of assassins both domestic and political.

From first-century Rome through the Renaissance, arsenic was used to dispatch foes, most famously in France and Italy by deadly strivers such as Catherine de Medici. And in the years before World War I, Amy Archer-Gilligan used the infamous substance to kill residents of her Windsor, Conn., nursing home, inspiring the play and movie Arsenic and Old Lace.

"The time when poisons were very commonly used was a time when we were much closer to our food supply," says Dr. Robert Powers, director of Connecticut's toxicology laboratory in Hartford.

"The common street knowledge didn't include just the three or four poisons that we think of today, but thousands of plants" and other lethal substances.

Arsenic is still at the top of the list, experts say. However, as Middleberg points out, "The dose makes the poison. You can kill somebody with water if you want to."

But Powers stresses that many poisonings today aren't meant to be fatal. So-called date-rape drugs, for example, are just poisons with another purpose.

Trestrail, for one, suspects that many murderous poisonings go undetected.

"I've always contended that poisonings are more common than people think," he says. His database suggests that about 40 percent of documented poisoners had multiple victims.

For example, Trestrail points to the case of Charles Cullen, a nurse who last year admitted to administering fatal overdoses to as many as 40 patients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Despite the suspicions of some hospital staff members, his crimes went undetected for years.

"It's an invisible death," Trestrail says, noting that many poisonings are only discovered after the fact by exhuming the victim's body.

"These are not weapons of opportunity," Trestrail says. "A poisoner is a planner."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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