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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 14, 2013

Thallium Poisoning, Again

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Posted by Derek

I agree with something Chemjobber said about this case - there's clearly a lot more to it than we know. Last fall, a student at the University of Southampton in the UK was poisoned with arsenic and thallium. According to this article in Chemistry World, it was more than the usual lethal dose, and both accidental exposure and suicide have been ruled out. The student himself is making a slow recovery; I wish him the best, and hope to eventually report good news.

So, not an accident, and not suicide. . .well, that doesn't leave much but intentional poisoning, does it? As this post details, though, thallium is the murder weapon of idiots who think that they're being high-tech. The Dunning-Kruger effect in action, in other words.

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | Toxicology


1. anchor on March 14, 2013 8:49 AM writes...

Dunning-Kruger effect..we know what it means especially when measured against these times. One too many having this syndrome primarily in politician all over the World including in Washington DC.

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2. milkshake on March 14, 2013 11:23 AM writes...

Tl(+) and As(III) are popular because they are easily available and have no suspicious taste

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3. paperclip on March 14, 2013 3:09 PM writes...

I wonder who did it. An insanely competitive grad student? A really, really bad PI? If he's already married, well, unfortunately you should always check the spouse.

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4. Slurpy on March 15, 2013 1:00 AM writes...

The investigators should ask the student from whom he always steals glassware. That'll be the perp.

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5. Da Vinci on March 15, 2013 10:39 AM writes...

Re No 3, Paperclip: This is the UK, not the US! We don't get that sort of counter-productive competition between lab member here, we have a healthy academic culture.

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6. a. nonymaus on March 15, 2013 11:00 AM writes...

Re: #2
Also popular amongst those too impatient to use Be(II).

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7. Anonymous on March 15, 2013 11:06 AM writes...

I'm with paperclip, first suspect in poisonings should always be a spouse or boy/girlfriend

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8. Kaleberg on March 16, 2013 9:15 PM writes...

Isn't thallium used in some illegal drug synthesis? There was some case where a guy was slipping it into a neighbor's Coca Cola.

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9. Hap on March 18, 2013 8:50 AM writes...

That would be George Trepal - he didn't like the neighbors' dogs, so first he poisoned the dogs and then the family. He got caught in part by creating a similar scenario for a Mensa Club mystery. There was also one in PA where a wife took out her husband with Tl.

I wouldn't have thought that either thallium or arsenic was all that easy to get. Using both seems like a good way to sort yourself out of the criminal gene pool.

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10. Robert Bruce Thompson on March 19, 2013 7:46 AM writes...

I don't think arsenic murders are quite as obvious as many people think. I suspect a lot of poisoners get away with it even now. Arsenic poisoning mimics gastroenteritis pretty closely.

In North Carolina, we had two famous female serial killers that were finally caught back in the 80's, Velma Barfield and Blanche Taylor Moore. Both used arsenic to kill many victims over the course of many years. No one suspected because no one thought to look for arsenic. One of these killers, I forget which, was ultimately caught because a nurse treating one of the would-be victims speculated that they might be looking at a case of arsenic poisoning. Everyone thought that was a ridiculous idea, but they went ahead and tested anyway. Sure enough, arsenic poisoning.

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11. metaphysician on March 19, 2013 4:12 PM writes...


My understanding is, that is how poisoning works in the modern age. Its an effective method of committing murder if, and only if, poisoning is not suspected.

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12. Robert Bruce Thompson on March 20, 2013 2:14 PM writes...

Depends on the poison. Some are essentially undetectable even instrumentally because the lethal dose is so tiny. Some continue to break down in the body after death, leaving only innocent metabolites. And the hardest are the group that are lethal but don't kill immediately, notably some fungal toxins, so by the time the victim begins having symptoms all traces of the toxin are long gone.

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13. A PhD student on June 3, 2013 3:34 PM writes...

Thanks Derek, I have been a fan of your blog since the start of my PhD, although your list of 'things I wouldn't work with' makes the entire level of my chem dept (and my research area) resemble some inner circle of hell for you. No ClF3 though...
@Paperclip I wonder as well. 'the spouse' was away for the 2 weeks before I was hospitalised.
@4 as the student in question was the one who had the glassware stolen from him, repeatedly, by the same people, and did return any he didn't have to reclaim in the condition it was found (usually caked in various inorganic oxides), I doubt it.
@ the rest, the level of As in my system was the least of my concerns (that and they got rid of that from my blood stream in a few days). The Chem World article doesn't say the level because it wasn't provided, but based on my maximum blood level and LD50 values I've found for most common Tl compounds (CO3, SO4 and NO3) I can guarantee it would have killed every single commenter, even if you were all given multiple 'lethal' doses, with a fair few peoples worth to spare. I was in hospital in August 2012, and was still there 8 months later, writing papers so I could finish my PhD and alleviate the boredom.

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14. paperclip on June 3, 2013 4:19 PM writes...

@13 You are definitely made out of stronger stuff, and that includes mental strength as well. (8 months in the hospital? I would have lost my mind.) I'm glad to hear you are doing well, or getting there. Congrats on reaching the end of the PhD, too. :)

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15. A PhD student on June 3, 2013 7:28 PM writes...

@Paperclip: thank you kindly but I'm not there yet, still got a few last bits to do (making some V(IV) amides, then using them for what I was trying to do for nearly 3 years...oh and a thesis to write), the wheelchair is somewhat hampering my efforts to get back into the lab, as is being wrapped in cotton wool by everybody. I'll call it a 'minor' set back. In the grand scheme of things, what's 10 months (so far) of not being able to use your legs properly? :P They say 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger', I'm still waiting for my superpowers. A good debate amongst my friends has been 'given that Tl basically shut's the bodies ability to repair itself down (Tl hijacks anything that needs K+ and makes it ineffective; nerves and cellular machinery included), would Wolverine of xmen fame have stood any better chance than me of surviving?' The popular consensus so far is 'we doubt it'

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