I’ve never really thought in much detail about killing babies, until I discovered a delightful way to do it. Despite billions invested in violent games and films, all it took was idly flipping through back-issues of the Annals of Internal Medicine. As one does.
I lie; that’s where Wikipedia sent me. But it’s a goody, nonetheless. Not that I intend to kill babies, or recommend it. I like babies, except sometimes on aeroplanes, in restaurants and at the theatre. I like them especially well once they grow up and stop trying to scream, spit, poo and pee on me.
Besides, diverting suspicion by jokingly announcing that you’re going to commit a crime only really works in the movies. So if, hypothetically, you were going to kill a baby, which I am certainly not about to do, or advise, here’s how you might be able to do it and get away with it.
I have never paid much attention to infant nutrition. It’s been a while since I was an infant, and even then, I didn’t get much say in menu planning. I never became a parent, to panic at the merest whiff of risk to my precious bundle of joy, and subject myself to endless lectures from everyone who has ever had an opinion about raising a baby. Being thus liberated from child-rearing advice and neuroses, many of the more fashionable fears passed me by entirely.
One would suppose that healthy, natural foods would be good for a child, and unhealthy, processed foods would not. But, as it turns out, this is not true. Common knowledge is rarely true.
We all know that honey, that golden nectar of the gods, is wonderful. It is also healthy, as the Mother Nature Network, Medical News Today, and random publishers of listicles will tell you. I like it when sweet things are good for you.
But in that learned medical journal I discovered that the very symbol of naturally delectable food, worshipped since the dawn of time, can kill a baby under a year old stone dead. Worse, it does this by means of the most toxic substance on earth.
You see, honey can contain spores of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that produces botulinum toxin. Not to be confused with salmonella, an altogether more common kind of food poisoning that is currently breaking out all over the place, including in major health food stores, botulinum is widely regarded as the most lethal substance known to man.
In adults, the digestive tract generally takes care of spores, and the immune system deals with stray bacteria. Adults get botulism – albeit rarely – from eating food that already contains the toxin, or from wounds infected by the bacterium. However, in the undeveloped digestive tract and weak immune system of a baby, the spore does what a spore’s got to do, and the resulting bacteria can colonise the gut and begin producing the deadly toxin. Result? Dead baby. This is only funny if it isn’t yours.
Ironically, another way of dying of botulism is by accidental overdosing on the botulinum toxin during the treatment of incurable dermal complications associated with a life-threatening condition called “aging”. That is also funny only if you are not the patient.
The paper about botulism in honey isn’t just some crackpot theory. It was first documented in the 1970s. Many reputable organisations advise that you should not expose babies under a year of age to the dangers of honey.
Notably, other likely infant foods or food ingredients, like sugar, cereal, corn syrup, milk formula, canned foods, and vitamin supplements, unless they are contaminated, are not considered to be sources of the spores that cause infant botulism. Honey stands alone.
While botulism is scary, the risk of getting it is not that high. About 145 cases are reported in the US every year, of which two thirds are infant botulism. Data on baby deaths is fairly sparse, since many countries don’t report them, but the maker of the most common drug to treat infant botulism estimates that 3,700 cases of infant botulism occurred worldwide in the last 40 years, during which time world population grew by three billion people. Out of these cases, only a handful of cases is known to have been caused by honey.
That said, even the delightfully named author of a book on the honey industry in Britain, Bee Wilson, who thinks the entire scare is “ludicrous”, admitted in a prominent editorial that as much as 10% to 13% of honey in California, where the first studies were done, contains botulinum spores. The official warnings seem appropriate. It’s great if your kid is one in a million, but it’d suck if it was the one in a million that dies of botulism.
Infant botulism has been cited as a cause of so-called “sudden infant death syndrome”, but it is curable if caught early. Go and see a doctor if your baby becomes noticeably weak or paralysed. You’d think that is obvious advice, but you’ve no idea (well, technically, I have no idea) how many mothers would treat floppy babies with luke-warm herbal tea with perhaps a teaspoon of honey for energy.
All this is handy if you want to get away with murder. A terribly unscientific straw poll among women I know – and I admit, they are few and far between – suggests that three quarters of them do not know that honey can kill a baby. It should be dead easy to sneak a teaspoon of the lethal stuff out of the larder and into your target’s apple puree. They’d file the result under “unexplained”.
If course, honey isn’t the only natural born killer that hides the precursor of a biological weapon of mass destruction. Castor beans contain ricin, another horrid chemical that kills people in gruesome ways no matter how they’re exposed to it. How to make this “poison for dummies” is plastered all over the internet, though you’re more likely to kill yourself than anyone else trying to make it. Apple pips famously contain cyanide, as do bitter almonds and some 1,500 other plants. Many plants actively create it, because they hate animals and wish they’d die, which some of them duly do. The highest concentration of cyanic glucoside, the natural form of cyanide, occurs in bamboo shoots, the favourite food of pandas.
When you happen to be out in nature, you can die in natural ways from organic substances all the time. Other natural things can cure you. You can, for example, make aspirin if you’re lost in the woods. Aspirin, or 2-acetoxybenzoic acid, to give it its properly scary name, is nothing more than the active ingredient in willow bark tea. It is no different from other so-called “alternative” medicines, except that it works, and clinical research has determined safe doses, pharmacological effects, contra-indications and side-effects.
As the Australian comic genius Tim Minchin so eloquently put it in his beat poem Storm, “Alternative medicine has either not been proved to work, or been proved not to work. You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”
(Sadly, this masterful rant in defence of rational science has only got three million views on YouTube. Though Minchin’s marketing minions make much of it, and have even produced a picture book on the strength of that number, I should point out a classic statistical fallacy. Three million sounds like a lot, but it means that only 0.04% of the world’s population has seen what really ought to be taught in every school.)
Most people know that aspirin shouldn’t be taken too often, because it’ll eat your gastric lining, but that an aspirin a day can keep your heart ticking over because it thins your blood. I was given aspirin as a child against fevers, but nowadays, most people know there are better alternatives with fewer side-effects available for children. What they probably don’t know (and I only learnt this morning) is that aspirin can kill a child just recovering from the flu. Stone dead. If you’re under 18, you’re at risk under certain conditions, even though aspirin is ordinarily safe for use over the age of two.
Is aspirin to be considered as 2-acetoxybenzoic acid, a dangerous chemical that kills children, or as a healing, soothing willow bark tea that breaks fevers and keeps older people alive naturally?
It is both. You see, the idea that “natural” and “organic” are good for you, while “chemical”, “artificial”, “synthetic” or “processed” are bad for you, is sorely misguided. These concepts are not opposites. Trying to divide the world into such binary opposites is unscientific and pointless.
All natural substances are chemical. Half of all chemicals that have ever been tested, whether natural or synthetic, cause cancer or are otherwise toxic to humans, according to professor Bruce Ames, a widely cited cancer researcher. As he wrote, “if you have thousands of hypothetical risks that you are supposed to pay attention to, that completely drives out the major risks you should be aware of.”
Drawing false distinctions is an easy trap to fall into. We instinctively divide things into boxes, and give them labels. The fewer labels there are, and the sharper the distinctions between them, the easier it is for us to think about them. That’s why so many issues appear to have only two sides, which you can be either for or against. But this is merely shorthand, and is often misleading.
Perfectly natural foods can kill you. There’s a reason natural herbicides and pesticides exist. There’s a reason salmonella outbreaks are often linked to organic food. Yet this is no reason to avoid those foods. We know many conventional chemicals are toxic, which is why there are tight controls on types and quantities used in foodstuffs. Conversely, we also know that many synthetic chemicals produced under controlled conditions are considerably safer to use in food or medicine than some arbitrary and complex natural extracts roughly measured with a teapot and a tot glass.
This isn’t a conceptual war between two sides. There aren’t even proper dividing lines. All of nature is chemical. Most chemicals are natural. The basis of organic chemistry is carbon, which is the basis of coal, oil and a host of vicious solvents. As my former physics tutor points out, dihydrogen monoxide is also a chemical, and it can also kill you in many exciting and novel ways, yet we consider a fear of this substance to be a psychological oddity.
There is no useful analytical difference between “natural” and “chemical”. It makes as little sense to buy something because it is natural than to avoid it for the same reason.
Test it. Try it. If it works, and is safe, use it. If it is not safe, because it is a vicious germ warfare weapon, just don’t feed it to babies less than a year old. Unless you mean to kill the sprog, in which case I’d like to talk to you about writing the true and terrifying tale of the Honey Killer. DM