January 28, 2008

Salt of the Earth

Essential saltsAnother reason some forms of religion are harmful:

Y. Ofran, D. Lavi, D. Opher, T. A. Weiss & E. Elinav, Fatal voluntary salt intake resulting in the highest ever documented sodium plasma level in adults (255 mmol L−1): a disorder linked to female gender and psychiatric disorders, J Intern Med, 256:6 pp 525-528, December 2004 (via A Good Poop).

The paper describes how a woman with post-natal depression ingested large quantities of salt in an exorcism ritual. This killed her. The interesting thing is that normally salt is emetic - it is hard to keep down. The paper comments:

The ability to consume such large quantities of salty water is peculiar. The ‘spiritual’ environment and the attendance of a large number of close family members in the exorcism ceremony might have prompted the patient to resist her natural distaste and ingest the highly salty beverage. The patient's depressive disorder may have contributed to her obedience and compliance with the drinking, whilst depression has been suggested to alter the sense of taste in a minority of individuals.

Reviewing previous cases of death by salt overdose, the paper notes that beside another exorcism where the victim was forced to ingest salt (this time as a 'treatment' for epilepsy) and a case of a fisherman swallowing much salt water, all other cases had patients suffering from cognitive or psychiatric disorders. Having a mental disorder seems to increase the risk of being salt poisoned by enabling consumption (either voluntarily or religiously coercively).

While salt poisoning is tricky, the widespread availability of this poison (that contains chlorine, quick, call Greenpeace!) suggests that people may be poisoning themselves and others far more than we might expect. An interesting paper, Yvan Gaillard, Ananthasankaran Krishnamoorthy and Fabien Bevalot, Cerbera odollam: a ‘suicide tree’ and cause of death in the state of Kerala, India, Journal of Ethnopharmacology Volume 95, Issues 2-3, December 2004, Pages 123-126 (this one via Drugs and Poisons) noted:

A close perusal of the statistical data on poisoning cases shows that ease of availability is the main factor determining the choice of poison for suicide or homicide. For example, in 65–70% of poisoning cases in Kerala, the toxins used are insecticides that are easily available to farmers. In the Kottayam and Idukki districts of central Kerala, however, where there are many rubber estates, more people use the so called ‘rubber acids’ (acetic acid and formic acid used for processing rubber latex) for committing suicide, while in Palakkad district the use of Thevetia peruviana (yellow oleander) is more widespread because of its natural abundance there. Those with access to goldsmiths use cyanide, since goldsmiths are licensed to possess it for purifying gold and electroplating. Those working in automobile electric workshops use sulphuric acid (battery acid), while the elite class tend to use drug overdoses.

It can thus be said that the availability of the poison and the victim's social and educational status play a role in the choice of the poison selected for committing suicide, although no distinction can be drawn caste-wise, since people of all castes in Kerala's coastal areas and backwaters commit suicide by taking odollam.

Suicide by drinking acetic acid? Suicide by sulphuric acid? People have to be really desperate to do that. But if ease of access is a key factor compared to horribleness of dying, then there ought to be a lot more salt suicides we have not noticed.

Apropos A Good Poop: what happened to Beavis & Butthead? They began to study medicine, became fratboys and realized that Medline abstracts could be hilarious. And none of us can stay away from this kind of juvenile medicine :-)

Posted by Anders3 at January 28, 2008 09:03 PM