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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Wisconsin Science Festival experiments with poison

science_GBGeorgia Black

“Poison is the only homicide which is always premeditated … poisoners have to plan how they’re going to kill you and plan how they’re going to introduce it,” Deborah Blum, University of Wisconsin Journalism professor and author of New York Times bestseller “The Poisoner’s Handbook” said during her lecture at the annual Wisconsin Science Festival Saturday.

Blum, an expert in the field of science journalism, led the audience through multiple murder cases involving poison and demonstrated how the lessons learned from forensics and toxic chemicals can apply to everyday life.

Blum took the audience to a time before the crime scene investigation era of chemical detection, when there were no forensic scientists, and explained the history of poisons and how people learned to detect them.


Poison is there in the ways people navigate the chemical world, whether that is homicidal or public health, Blum said.

“People spend their days exposed to, made up of and interacting with chemicals and the ones that actually give people harm are a relatively small percentage of what people are exposed to,” Blum said.

Poisonous chemicals are devious and know how to use people’s bodies against themselves, Blum said.

Blum discussed some murder cases that involved unhappy marriages in which a wife tried to poison her husband through poisonous leaves in his salad or by injecting poison into jello and others that involved poor New York City apartment tenants.

Some cases showed people voluntarily using poison by applying cosmetics with arsenic or using arsenic to dye food green.

The cases Blum outlined, some dating back to the 1920s, are still affecting people’s lives, she said.

Murder “casts a really long shadow,” Blum said, adding that people have been going to the New York City Medical Examiner’s office for decades trying to find different answers.

“That was an important lesson for me … which is that I tell these stories, to me they’re fascinating illustrations of toxicology and how it works, but I’m not a fiction writer. I write about real people, so it was a reminder to me that they’re real and they matter,” Blum said.

An audience member asked Blum if there is an emerging field of untraceable poisons and research exploring it.

For most poisons, it is about being smart and knowing where to look, Blum said.

Another member of the audience asked why carbon monoxide deaths were still so prevalent despite all of the technology available to detect it.

“The continued poisoning by carbon monoxide drives me crazy,” Blum said.

A lack of regulation currently exists, and since carbon monoxide has been around for so long, it is not taken seriously anymore, even though it is a powerful and fatal poison, Blum said.

Carbon monoxide poisoning kills around 500 people a year and sends another 20,000 to the hospital, the majority of which are accidental poisonings, Blum said.

An audience member asked if crime scene investigation standards were changing in a similar way to the changing fire investigation and arson standards, and whether there is a push towards national certification.

If people can catalog what is known about a crime scene, decide what to look for and determine the standards the investigation, it is a great idea, Blum said.

The more people understand these chemicals, where they are and how they affect people, the smarter people can be in learning to deal with them, Blum said.

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