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The greatest cause of death in the Middle Ages, aside from pestilence,
was bread. After the collapse of
classical enlightenment agriculture was conducted with neither care nor
wisdom. The planting and harvesting of
grain was done in dismal ignorance.
Once harvesting was completed landlords hoarded it to maintain stocks in
the face of famine or to squeeze higher prices from the hungry. Europe's damp winters and improper storage
set the stage for further misery. In
the rye, wheat, barley, rice and oats a variety of fungal poisons and molds
grew, producing toxins in the grain.
Grain that would have been rejected by any Roman, Egyptian, Arab or
Greek farmer were turned into bread or fed to livestock. Epidemics of Saint Anthony's fire and other
mycotoxins killed thousands of people and livestock.
The most familiar of these ghastly fungal poisons was ergot.
Ergot is first mentioned in an Assyrian tablet dating from 600 BC as a noxious
pustule found on the ears of grain. A
sacred text of the Farsis of Persian from 400 BC speaks of a deadly grass that
caused abortions in cattle. One chronicler
described the impact of an epidemic in France in 943 AD:
"Shrieking, wailing and writhing men collapsed in the street. Many
stood up from their tables and rolled like wheels through the room; others
toppled over and foamed in epileptic convulsions; still others vomited and
showed signs of sudden insanity. Many
of then screamed "Fire! I'm burning!"
The symptoms were called holy fire, occult fire, Saint Anthony's fire, or
Saint Vitus' dance. The symptoms of
ergotism combined a sensation of cold hands and feet (cause by the contraction
of vein and arteries in the extremities) followed by terrible burning because
of the cutting off of circulation. Then
came gangrene. The limbs quickly turned
black from necrosis and finally arms, legs, ears and genitalia fell off. Death followed shortly afterward. A recent novel by Robin Cook suggests that
ergotism was the root cause of the Salem Witch trials.
Ergot is a black or dark purple mass, a long, hard clubbed shaped
structure formed by the mold Claviceps
purpurea. The mycotoxins,
which form in grains stored in dampness, contain alkaloids that are derivatives
of lysergic acid. They block nerve
impulses, cause constriction of the veins and arteries, stimulate and depress
different parts of the brain and cause progressive paralysis and uterine
contractions. With the restoration of
agricultural know how, ergotism disappeared from area where proper storage of
grain could be maintained and hunger did not drive persons to use grains they
would otherwise reject. But ergotamine
is not the only mycotoxin derived found in bread.
Another grain mycotoxin was
identified in Russia in 1891 in the Ussuri district of eastern Siberia. Called the "staggering sickness"
because its victims were stricken with vertigo, headache, chills, nausea and
vomiting, the disease made several recurrences in the Soviet Union in 1934 and
throughout the 1940s. The primitive
harvesting methods still practiced in the midst of revolution, famine and war
led to practices assuring its growth. It
was common practice, particularly in the Caucasus, to leave grain in the fields
over winter. But the cycle of thaw,
refreeze and thaw promoted the growth of mold. The grain, now thoroughly
infested was gathered up by hungry peasants determined not to waste a single
stalk. Grain poisoning added to the
Soviet doctors christened the disease alimentary toxic aleukia
(ATA). The mycotoxins, produced by Fusarium poae and Fusarium sprotichiodes, were called trichothecenes or T2 toxins.
Outbreaks of ATA continued through 1947.
Similar afflictions struck horses and cattle in Russia and Eastern
Europe in 1958-9 through infected feed grains.
There have been instances of T2 poisoning all over the world.
An outbreak killed 100,000 turkeys in England
in 1960 after they ate peanut meal contaminated with aflatoxin, another T2
T2 toxins are very stable, especially in solid form and may be stored for
years at room temperature without loss of potency, even at temperatures of 100
F. They are easily absorbed through the
skin or internal membranes. A dose as
small as 0.1 mg/kg is fatal, making it more dangerous than cobra venom. These
characteristics brought them to the attention of Soviet and American unconventional
warfare experts, as
will be discussed.