A Quick Lesson in “The Dose Makes The Poison”

Or, Sometimes Even A Dose Doesn’t Make the Poison

Sometime back a hefty comment thread got going on arsenic levels in white rice; in particular, rice from the southern US where arsenic based pesticides were once used (stuff soaks into the ground, stays there, gets soaked up by rice crops…you get the picture). Accordingly, some people brought up the fact that certain brands of parboiled or converted white rice, e.g., Uncle Ben’s Original, had been shown to have measurable levels of the stuff.

Thread went on, pretty heated at times—someone told someone else to eff off…very unusual for Free the Animal :) —with lots of references links here and there, but what seemed to stop the thread dead in its tracks was this one article: THE ARSENIC EATERS OF STYRIA.

Say the word arsenic and most people think “deadly poison.” Arsenic was the poison of choice for murderers up through the latter part of the nineteenth century, and it is still used for homicides up to the present time. It may, therefore, seem surprising that arsenic was also used extensively as a medicine for centuries, and was even consumed by many people as a health tonic or for cosmetic purposes. A particularly interesting case in point is the arsenic eaters of Styria. […]

These so-called toxicophagi were a group of peasants in Styria and Lower Austria who were in the habit of eating arsenic. They ate the arsenic either to acquire a fresh complexion and appearance of flourishing health or to facilitate respiration when walking or working in the mountainous terrain of the area. These toxicophagi began by taking a small piece of the arsenic, about the size of a lentil (less than half a grain) several times a week. Over time, they gradually increased the dose as the smaller quantity loses its effect. Tschudi gives an example of a man of about sixty years of age who had increased the dose over time to about four grains (enough to kill most people). […]

The debate over the arsenic eaters continued, however, and several individuals attempted to obtain further evidence of the practice. Henry Enfield Roscoe, professor of chemistry at Owens University in Manchester, published a paper on arsenic-eating in 1862. Roscoe communicated with seventeen physicians in Styria, all of whom agreed that it was generally believed that some people there consumed arsenic regularly in substantial quantities without apparent harm. These physicians also provided information on cases of arsenic eating which they had personally observed or which had been related to them by “trustworthy persons.” One physician, for example, described a case of a man who consumed a total of 10 grains (at least twice the normal lethal dose) over two days and still appeared to be in good health. One of Roscoe’s correspondents also provided a sample of a substance consumed by an arsenic eater; chemical analysis had confirmed that this was white arsenic. Roscoe affirmed “That arsenious acid [white arsenic] is taken regularly into the system, by certain persons in Styria, in quantities usually supposed sufficient to produce immediate death.”

The Scottish physician Craig Maclagan also traveled to Styria with a colleague to investigate the subject. He later published his results in the Edinburgh Medical Journal in 1864. While in Styria, Maclagan, along with a Dr. Knappe, watched two arsenic eaters consume what would normally be lethal doses of the chemical. Neither man showed any ill effects from the arsenic on the following day. […]

More recent studies, however, have provided stronger evidence for the development of tolerance to arsenic in certain animals and even in human cells, although the nature and mechanism of such tolerance is not completely understood. Some plants have also been shown to be unusually tolerant to arsenic. In 2001, T. W. Gebel claimed that the development of an elevated tolerance to the acute toxicology of arsenic in humans should be acquirable, and cited some studies supporting the development of arsenic tolerance in humans and other organisms. He went on to caution, however, that the question had to be examined in more detail in order to definitively settle the issue. As chemist William Cullen wrote in his book on arsenic:

“Because the number of arsenic eaters in Styria was relatively small, and because they were very secretive about their habit, it was difficult to unequivocally prove their existence. Nevertheless, there is a considerable body of scientific evidence that Styrian peasants did deliberately ingest poisonous arsenic trioxide.”

The above, excerpted from King of Poisons.

Bottom line, lots of foods have some micrograms of arsenic. Just a quick eyeballing of the Consumer Reports chart at that link, 5 micrograms is a reasonable guess for how much you might get on average per serving. So, putting it in perspective, after 200,000 servings you’ll have ingested a full gram. At 2 servings per day, you’ll have attained a gram by your 274th birthday.

Or, since 4 grains in one ingestion is the average lethal dose (with some of those Styrians demonstrating acquired tolerance to such a dose), you’ll need an accumulated 260,000 micrograms to get there. That’s 52,000 servings. At 2 per day, you’ll get there by your 72nd birthday…so perhaps there is deep cause for concern after all [/sarcasm].

As for me, I have far more important things to worry about. But I do hope you get the lesson and apply it widely. Not to say that some individuals can’t be very sensitive to some “anti-nutrients” or toxins, but there’s otherwise substantial penny wise, pound foolish hand wringing going on. You know what I mean. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

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  1. Jerry on January 17, 2014 at 07:07

    Ok, so what are the benefits?
    Does it really make you look younger?
    Or actually become younger? (I.e. does it lengthen telemeres?)

    • Richard Nikoley on January 17, 2014 at 08:23

      “Ok, so what are the benefits?”

      Thanks for trying to miss the point on purpose and exposing yourself accordingly.

    • Jerry on January 17, 2014 at 15:46

      I get your point, Richard. So the dose makes the poison. Ok.
      Now, I’d like to know why these people eat arsenic. Does it have a real benefit?

    • Richard Nikoley on January 18, 2014 at 07:48

      OK. Well, hell, I don’t know. Funny these kinds of things. Perhaps at small doses there is a hermetic effect that’s beneficial. Just like intermittent fasting can be very beneficial, starvation isn’t. One guy out there, forget his name, he’s that 55 theses guy—Jimmy Moore interviewed him—said that it’s best for children to be on more of an everything diet, including grains, so as to essentially stress the system, I guess, then go to clean paleo later, like by age 8 maybe I recall.

      But anyway, I certainly have to interest in finding what a therapeutic level of arsenic of any other toxin is but rather to vary foods so as to vary the toxins and thus limit the amount of any single one.

    • John on January 18, 2014 at 10:31

      Benefits of eating arsenic and other poisons explained here- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sPVEBAtwmg

    • Richard Nikoley on January 18, 2014 at 10:55

      And there you go Jerry. The benefit is that you get the girl.

  2. Katie on January 17, 2014 at 08:03

    That reminds me of the panic over radiation exposure after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Clearly some level of radiation exposure is extremely harmful and, in some instances, fatal. But I thought I read a report somewhere that when people exposed to elevated but not fatal levels were monitored years later, they actually had a LOWER rate of cancer than the average population. There probably are “U” or “J” shaped curves for a lot of things, such as blood sugar, cholesterol, and toxin exposure. So many “toxins” are found in nature that I find it hard to believe we could have evolved without figuring out a way to live with it and possibly even benefit from it – just like our symbiotic relationship with the trillions of bugs living in and on us.

  3. ChocoTaco369 on January 17, 2014 at 08:38

    But Richard, if we don’t completely overstate and exaggerate the minutiae, how else can we justify our baseless, dogmatic beliefs in our own mind? You don’t get it, bro.

  4. guruz on January 17, 2014 at 08:57
    • Jerry on January 17, 2014 at 15:54

      Here is Google Translate’s translation of part of it:


      In very small doses of about 2 mg ingestion of arsenic produces a feeling of warmth in the stomach. This is due to the local irritation of the gastric mucosa, as they can also be observed in the absorption of alcohol. In this dose arsenic increases appetite and general well -being. Due to the increased appetite Arsenikesser take on weight – a fact used the fraudulent horse dealer earlier to give lean , emaciated horses through small Arsenikgaben a healthy , fiery appearance . Especially the hair was thus nice and smooth and shiny. Ernst von Bibra writes in his 1855 published book The narcotic stimulant and man, that in Vienna horses were regularly arsenic , either by feed mixed , or by using a cloth bag with the substance is bound to the bite bar of the bridle . Even horses that had to transport loads through the mountains , received arsenic.

      In addition to the performance-enhancing effect also taking cosmetic reasons seems to have sometimes played a role. So reports of Bibra that you took arsenic for a healthy appearance. The weight gain associated with the ingestion corresponded well to the ideal of beauty 19 Century – an effect that in Austria and women took advantage and reportedly up in the first half of the 20th Century Arseniktörtchen for this purpose were eating. But this cosmetic use appears to have been the exception. In fact, there were more mountain farmers and forestry workers who took arsenic as a kind of tonic to enhance performance to him.

  5. Richard Nikoley on January 17, 2014 at 09:33


    Not good at all, in spite of my dad immigrating here in ’59. Google translate had no word, but the translation of the German Wikipedia explanation was easy enough. So, ha, there you go.

  6. Jan on January 17, 2014 at 10:07

    Thanks, Richard. I have to say that with gut problems(SIBO/IBS), I do try and minimize toxins/pesticides in my food. With GMOs, chemicals, additives, etc…it pays to be vigilant and I pay if I’m not! That said, I appreciate the perspective and info on arsenic in rice. I’m not even going to ask about the 37 toxic residues in non-organic potatoes that could be in daily PS doses….why, because I’m a fan! I think there are many positive benefits from your RS approach to gut health. So, questions and fears, whether rational or irrational, all serve to inform the process and allow us to make informed decisions.

    Would love to know your thoughts on this sometime: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140116130451.htm

  7. John on January 17, 2014 at 10:31

    Its so easy to get caught up in the details with nutrition. If I start worrying about this minute shit, thats when I look at my family members living in their 80’s who smoked, drink, eat garbage, etc. “Heart attack on a plate!!!” lol. “I’ve spent the past 3 months in isolation reading about goitrogens in broccoli, grandma, though you’ve never worried about broccoli, and though your old, well, and cognitively present, rest assured that I feel a deep sense of stress and worry watching you eat that.”

    I was reading a book one time discussing how if coffee were a synthetic substance, it would be banned for consumption due the number of known carcinogens in it. The author went on to say that, nevertheless, people don’t get the complex interaction of food and people and so many times reductionist theoretical ideas don’t play out. A central theme of that book was generally how improper it is to take something as complex as food, and something as complex as human biology, and attempt to conclude that isolated x (ie lycopene in tomatoes) affects human aspect y with any degree of certainty.

    • Richard Nikoley on January 17, 2014 at 11:32

      And John, add to that the 100 Trillion cells in your gut, 10 times cells in the rest of you, with 125 more genes in total, up to 1,000 species, and tell me how human biology even begins to address the enormity of it all.

      Or, just give a 2-word answer: ‘evolution mutherfucker!’ Then add: ‘told you so.’

  8. Bobert on January 17, 2014 at 18:25

    Eat enough apples seeds and you will get arsenic poisoning.

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