Phosphine Can Kill

It is a family tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Two young children in Jerusalem are dead, two others are in critical condition. It seems they were poisoned by phosphine gas! Although the details are still somewhat sketchy, evidence is pointing towards a fumigation process gone terribly astray. Apparently there was a problem with insects or rodents in an apartment and an exterminator was hired. He chose to use aluminum phosphide to generate phosphine gas. When this solid reacts with water it yields garlicky-smelling phosphine gas which kills just about everything that it comes into contact with. That’s why rooms or houses have to be evacuated and totally sealed when phosphine is used. It is a bad idea to fumigate with this gas in a residential setting and using it without adequate warnings can be disastrous as was the case here. Sometimes aluminum phosphide in the form of pellets is combined with bait and when rodents swallow it, phosphine forms as the aluminum phosphide reacts with stomach acid. In India where aluminum phosphide is commonly used to generate phosphine by farmers, it presents yet another problem. In the northern areas of the county aluminum phosphide is the most common agent used for suicides.

Phosphine is generally used to fumigate grain and under properly controlled conditions it eliminates pests and improves the safety of our food supply. It is being used increasingly since methyl bromide, a chemical implicated in destruction of the ozone layer, is being phased out by many countries according to the Montreal Protocol. Phosphine is also used during processing of some goods that are destined for sale in another country to ensure that no new species of pests are introduced. Unfortunately insects are already developing a resistance to phosphine. The gas leaves no residue in food and quickly dissipates in a ventilated environment. Of course that is not the case in a sealed room. According to accounts, the room in the Jerusalem apartment that was fumigated was sealed, but the family was not told to leave and the seal turned out to be inadequate. Phosphine seeped out, and being heavier than air affected children the most readily.

The children in the apartment fell ill after supper and were taken to a clinic with the parents informing the doctor that they thought the problem was some bad food. There was no mention of any insecticide being used, so there was absolutely no way for a physician to consider the possibility of this type of poisoning. After the children were examined at the clinic they appeared to be fine and were sent home. The next thing we know is that when emergency personnel were called to the home, one child was dead and the others were in dire straits. Seems that there must have been some further exposure at home from the leaking phosphine. Unfortunately there is no antidote to phosphine poisoning. The exterminator has been arrested, accused of negligence. What happened exactly should become clearer as details emerge. Just a terrible story.

Overhyped Agave

We like our life to be sweet. But we are hearing more and more about the evils of sugar, a notion backed by significant scientific findings. Artificial sweeteners don’t appear to be the answer to our cravings with some studies showing that despite a cutback in calories when sugar is reduced in favour of the sweeteners, there is no weight loss. Adults who consume diet drinks tend to compensate for calories by eating more solid foods. It isn’t surprising then that there are all sorts of new kids on the block trying to get into the sweetener game. Like agave syrup. Actually, this isn’t exactly a new kid. It’s pretty old. Ten thousand years ago South American natives were already aware of the sweet taste of the sap of the cactus-like plant they called agave. Not only did it have a pleasing sweet taste but it could be fermented into mescal and tequila! They referred to the sap as “aguamiel” which translates as “honey water.” A pretty apt description because chemically honey and agave syrup are very similar. Both are composed of fructose and glucose with fructose being more dominant. The exact composition of agave syrup depends on how the sap is extracted and heated, but it tends to have a high fructose content. This has both benefits and detriments.

Since fructose is sweeter than sucrose, or table sugar, the same degree of sweetness can be achieved with less fructose. Furthermore, agave syrup has a lower glycemic index than sugar. Glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how fast blood glucose levels rise after eating particular foods and a diet featuring lower glycemic index can improve long-term blood glucose control in diabetics so one can argue that agave is better for diabetics than sugar. In fact, the difference is marginal and sugar from all sources needs to be restricted. While fructose is less likely to boost blood glucose than sugar, it is more likely to increase levels of triglycerides in the blood, a risk factor for heart disease. Agave syrup is actually known to have the highest fructose content of any commercial sweetener! In addition, fructose has also been linked with insulin resistance and non-alcoholic, fatty liver disease. What agave has is great marketing. It is being promoted as a natural, healthy alternative to sugar. Of course sugar is as natural as can be, but that has no bearing on its attributes or foibles. Basically agave is chemically in the same class as high fructose corn syrup which has been accused, mostly unjustly of causing everything from obesity and heart disease to global warming and Justin Bieber’s problems. Just kidding. The bottom line is that there is no reason to favour agave over any other form of sugar, unless you particularly like its flavour. The only benefit of agave is that it can be used to make tequila.

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