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The World’s Deadliest Thing

Around 1895, whilst investigating the case of a group of musicians who had died after eating cooked ham, a Belgian scientist called Emile van Ermengem identified the bacteria at the heart of Kerber’s sausage poisonings, a disease that had been coined Botulism, after bolutus, the Latin for sausage. Later work showed that these bacteria, which Van Ermengem named Clostridium Botulinum, would only grow under certain conditions. The inside of a piece of badly stored, processed meat was ideal, but when conditions changed, the bacteria would shut down, forming highly resistant spores and remaining in that form until conditions were right again for growth.

A few years later, scientists discovered something even more remarkable. The spores that produce these deadly bacteria were almost everywhere. They were found in the soil, on the surface of vegetables, in animal faeces and within riverbeds. They could survive being boiled, being frozen, and cope with highly acidic environments. Thankfully, these spores were also harmless, passing through humans unchanged if ingested. But under the correct conditions, they would turn back into bacteria, producing a deadly neurotoxin. If this toxin was ingested, even in the tiniest quantities imaginable, it would produce a slow paralysis moving down the body, eventually shutting down vital processes like breathing. For anyone unlucky enough to consume it, the survival rate was around 60%.


It is perhaps strange that such a rare poisoning event shapes our modern food system so profoundly, but this is perhaps because the toxin produced is one of, if not the, deadliest on earth. It has been estimated that in its pure crystalline form, six grams of botulism toxin, about one teaspoon full, would be enough to kill 200 million people. The lethal dose when consumed orally is around 30 billionths of a gram, which if you want a relatable comparison, is about the same as if you cut a single poppy seed into ten thousand equal pieces and ate one of them. It is an amount so tiny, it really doesn’t make sense.


The rapid, long-lasting and highly noticeable cosmetic effects made Botox a near instant success. In small doses, the same nerve damage that causes fatal paralysis in poisoning cases, helps to remove forehead creases and crow’s feet, with the only side effects being an inability to express emotion using your face, and an occasional case of drooping eyelids. A distinctive wrinkle-free and slightly startled look became fashionable among the Hollywood A-List, and eventually across the world. It is of course deeply ironic that many celebrities who publicly advocated a clean living, chemical-free lifestyle, were also early adopters of a treatment that involves injecting the deadliest substance on earth into your face (looking at you, Paltrow). If any of them were surprised at this seeming paradox, they certainly didn’t show it.


[I]t is likely that the pure crystalline form of Botulinum toxin is now also the most valuable, with an estimated street value of $100 trillion per kilogram. The entire global face paralysing industry is supported by an annual production of just a few milligrams.


Never linked Botulinum and Botox to one another. Wow.

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