Literatus: Deadlier than puff-A A +A
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
THOSE who were born in the 1960s may be very familiar with Peter, Paul & Mary’s 1963 song Puff the Magic Dragon.
The song was based on the poem by Leonard Lipton, who was 19 when he wrote it in 1959 while studying in Cornell University. He got his inspiration from Ogden Nash’s poem, Custard the Dragon. It tells of the little boy, Jackie Paper, who befriended the ageless Puff, apparently so named for the great puff of fire it can make.
The dragon may be a friendly one, but another “puff,” also residing in the sea, can be more deadly than this mythical dragon. Its official name is pufferfish (Tetraodontidae) or simply puffer. It is also known as blowfish because of its capability to gulp in water or air into its huge and highly elastic stomach to frighten would-be predators; or globefish because of its near-globelike stomach. Visayans call the fish botete in reference to its prominent stomach.
But pufferfish can be deadly to humans because of its puffing prowess. This is so because of its deadly neurotoxin, called “tetrodotoxin” (TTX), which closes the sodium channels in the nerve cell membranes of the human body, rendering the person paralyzed. It is roughly 100 times more poisonous than potassium cyanide. And the bad news is there has been no antidote to this toxin to date.
I can only speak for Visayans who love its flesh as a delicacy. It is a favorite fish in certain parts of Mindanao. But I know also some instances when those who ate it, not knowing how to prepare it properly, got poisoned.
As little as half a milligram (8 microgram per kg) of TTX can kill a person injected with it. The lethal dose for humans is 25 milligrams, which can kill a person weighting 170 lbs (75 kg). Aside from a possible entry through abraded skin, it can also be inhaled.
In pufferfish, TTX can be found not just in its liver but also in the other organs. In a study in 1999 by Clark, Williams, Nordt & Manoguerra (published in Undersea Hyperbolic Medicine), it was found that it can paralyze the diaphragm resulting in death by respiratory failure.
Classic symptoms—numbness in the tongue and lips, increased salivation, sweating, body
weakness/lethargy, etc.—typically appear within 30 minutes of ingestion. And if left untreated, the person can die within four hours (but cases of death within 17 minutes have been recorded).
A physician must be called as fast as possible; but it would be better if the person can be brought to a hospital. Meanwhile, the person must be made to vomit everything in the stomach, and given activated charcoal (available over-the-counter in local pharmacies) to bind the toxin.
Long-running TV series Star Trek in its episode “The Search for Spock” churned out this challenge: “Turn death into a fighting chance to live.”
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on March 06, 2013.