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BIOTOXINS IN WARFARE
The first uses of poison in warfare almost certainly involved dabbing
them on the points of arrows and spears.
Shortly afterward, enterprising strategists began poisoning the water
supplies of besieged cities.
Around 600 BC misguided individuals in Delphi's port city, Cirrha, stole land deeded to Apollo's temple.
Called upon to right this wrong, Solon
besieged Cirrha and built a dam across the Plesitus River, cutting off the
city's water supply. Drinking well and rain water, the Cirrhaeans held on for
several months. Solon then tossed
hellebore roots into the dammed water, let them dissolve and then released the
river to its channel. The Cirrhaeans
drank the water and developed violent and uncontrollable diarrhea.
With the defenders otherwise occupied, Solon
seized the unguarded walls. Such
practices were widespread. During the
second year of the Peloponnesian War in 430 BC when plague broke
out in Athens, the Spartans were accused of poisoning the cisterns of
the Piraeus, the source of most of Athens' water.
There were other methods as well.
In 401 BC Xenophon led his Greek soldiers in a hasty retreat from
Babylon. To the Greeks the campsite
near Trabzon looked very much like
heaven. Fish were available from the nearby sea,
the hills were covered with beautiful rhododendrons, and the woods harbored
rich beehives. The soldiers than feasted on
honeycombs. The result, as Xenophon recorded, was unpleasant.
All the soldiers who ate of the
honeycombs lost their senses, and were seized with vomiting and purging, none
of them being able to stand on their legs.
Those who ate but a little were like men very drunk, and those who ate
much, like madmen and some like dying persons.
In this condition great numbers lay on the ground, as if there had been
a defeat, and the sorrow was general.
The next day none of them died, but recovered their senses about the
same hour they were seized. And the
third day they got up as if they had taken a strong potion.
Xenophon had been lucky. The pursuing
Colchian army had not attacked during the army's prostration and near
In 67 BC the Roman General Pompey set out to conquer King Mithridates IV
of Pontus. Over the course of a year
Mithridates slowly retreated before the Roman advance until the two armies
confronted one another near Trabzon, on the black sea coast of Turkey.
Although the Romans thought the retreat was
unplanned the maneuver and the direction were urged by Mithradites
chief adviser, the Greek physician Kateuas.
Pompey's hungry troops repeated the honey-feasting of Xenophon's
troops. Modern science calls the poison
in Trabzon's honey a grayanotoxin.
Grayanotoxins are produced by various species of rhododendrons and
laurels and are present in the nectar of these plants, which is collected by
bees for making honey. The toxins
selectively bind to the sodium channels in cell membranes.
When excitable cells such as those in nerves
or muscles start pumping sodium out through their membranes grayanotoxins
prevent the pumps from turning off, and so the cells remain in an excited
state. Like the Greek army three and a
half century earlier, the Romans went into drunken convulsions.
This time the Pontians, cued by Kateuas,
were waiting for the result of the "mad honey poisoning."
The army did not escape but was massacred.
War continued to be fought through the millenia and poisons were used
whenever it was considered advantageous.
In World War I synthetic chemical weapons were used for the first time
with deadly effect. The emphasis on
these weapons and their control caused many to forget that the biotoxins still
On September 13, 1981 Alexander Haig, then Secretary of State accused
Soviet-backed Communist forces in Southeast Asia of using a novel toxin weapon
in Southeast Asia -- "potent
mycotoxins, poisonous substances not indigenous to the region and which are
highly toxic to man and animals."
The basis of the charge was the analysis of a leaf, a one inch length of
stem and fragments of other leaves from an area on the Thai/Cambodia border
which Vietnamese planes allegedly attacked.
The samples were carefully parceled out to a handful of laboratories for
analysis. Biologists, unaware of the
source of their samples, concluded that the leaf was covered by Fusaria fungus and contained three
different mycotoxins. The
concentrations were 20 times higher than any recorded natural outbreak.
Further supporting this were reports among
refugees that they had been subjected to air attacks by low flying planes that
had diffused a yellow powder. After exposure to this "yellow rain"
they became ill with a variety of symptoms suggestive of T2 toxin poisoning and
The mycotoxin reported was a T2
toxin. In the ensuing months controversy surrounded the
charges. Evidence suggested that the State
Department did not know what it was talking about when it claimed the mycotoxin did
not appear in Southeast Asia, which it
did. Some scientists suggested that the "toxin" was actually
little more than bee feces which was eventually proven to be the
case. Anthropologists raised serious objections
to the way interviews were conducted with the underlying assumption on the part
of the interviewer being that an attack had
occurred. They questioned the American government's motive in making the
charge, suggesting it was part of a propaganda ploy to step up chemical and
biological warfare production.
The critics had their own axes to grind.
The most vociferous were participants and architects of the 1972
Biological Warfare Convention. Evidence
that the Soviet Union was producing mycotoxins would invalidate the crowning
achievement of their careers. No resolution
has ever been achieved in the case, but it serves as a reminder of how difficult
detecting such weapons can be.
Note: Mithradites was fearful of being poisoned and
adopted the practice of building up resistance to poisons by taking increasingly