and here's a news flash for our resident Prince:
Health - AFP
India's "suicide tree" is also a tool for murder
Thu Nov 25, 1:37 PM ET Health - AFP
PARIS (AFP) - An Indian tree with poisonous fruit is used by more people to commit suicide than any other plant in the world and has a barely-investigated role in murder, French and Indian scientists say.
In one Indian state alone, deaths from the Cerbera odollam tree are running at an average of almost one a week, they say.
According to their investigations in the southwestern state of Kerala, 537 deaths can be attributed to odollam poisonings in the 11 years between 1989 and 1999, with the annual toll running from 11 to as high as 103.
"The odollam tree is responsible for about 50 percent of the plant poisoning cases and 10 percent of the total poisoning cases in Kerala," say the team, led by Yvan Gaillard of France's Laboratory of Analytical Toxicology.
"To the best of our knowledge, no plant in the world is responsible for as many deaths by suicide as the odollam tree."
Between 70 and 75 percent of suicide victims are women, raising questions about marital strife and in-law problems in India, and the fruit "is also occasionally used for homicide," according to their probe.
The odollam tree grows to a height of 15 metres (48 feet), with dark green lives and a milky white latex sap.
It has large white flowers with a delicate, jasmine-like perfume and a fruit that, when still green, looks like a small mango and is sometimes eaten by children, with tragic consequences.
Those who commit suicide mash up the white kernel with sugar and eat it, while for murder, "a few kernels are mixed with food containing plenty of chillies to cover the bitter taste of the poison. Death is likely to occur three-to-six hours after ingestion."
Odollam's weapon is a toxin called cerberin, which works by stopping the heart, which is why many poisonings -- unless samples are tested by liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry -- are likely to to be written off as fatal heart attacks, Gaillard's team say.
The risk of using odollam for suicide or worse may also apply in countries where it does not grow naturally, because the fruit may be brought in by the Asian diaspora, Gaillard's team says.
Odollam is "an extremely toxic plant that is relatively unknown to western doctors, chemists, analysts and even coroners and forensic scientists."
Their study is published in the October issue of a US publication, the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. The British weekly New Scientist reports on the findings in next Saturday's issue.
C. odollam grows in coastal salt swamps and creeks in south India and along riverbanks in southern and central Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In Kerala, the tree is known as othalanga maram, while in the adjacent state of Tamil Nadu it is known as kattu arali.
In Southeast Asia, where the oily seeds are used as insect repellent or are burned for light, the common names for it are pong-pong, buta-buta or nyan.
One of its relatives, Cerbera venenifera, grows widely in Madagascar, and was used as an "ordeal poison" in previous centuries to determine guilt or innocence among suspected witches or groups accused of plotting against the king.
In Madagascar's central province, as many as 6,000 people are thought to have died in a single ordeal, according to a 1991 study.