Toxic Blog #5 – Serial poisoners knew a lot about hazard, exposure and risk

Whilst researching serial poisoners I recently found an old notebook I had used when preparing for after-dinner speaking engagements. Flicking through the notebook, I realised that serial poisoners knew a thing or two about human health risk assessment.

Not in the modern-day sense, i.e. establishing whether there is a risk of harm from using a specific chemical in a specific application (e.g.) as a food additive, in cosmetics or in a spray application.

Instead, serial poisoners used knowledge of hazard and exposure to make use of specific chemicals (i.e. ‘poisons’) in such a way to deliberately cause harm. They knew,

(1) which was the best poison (i.e. chemical) to use in terms of its hazard, i.e. toxicity, and dose.

(2) the most appropriate exposure route. In most cases, this was ingestion as it is remarkably easy to hide a small dose of something nasty in a scrumptious meal. Tip the waiter.

Malice aforethought – Mary Anne Cotton (1865-1872)

Mary Anne Cotton was a serial poisoner. She poisoned over 21 members of her (including her children), by adulterating their food with arsenic before she was arrested for her crimes. Perhaps sensibly, she made sure that all her family had up to date life insurance, and she cashed indirectly after their untimely demise.

Mary Anne knew that arsenic was toxic by ingestion (i.e. the hazard) and, using a sufficient oral dose (exposure), the risk of harm would be significant, and deadly.

She knew about human health risk assessment and put it to sinister use.

Human health risk assessment

Risk assessments are not difficult to do and, whether you are undertaking workplace risk assessment (e.g. COSHH) or desk-based risk assessments (e.g. registration work), the approach is still the same.

Want to learn more about human health risk assessment?

The Introduction to Human Health Risk Assessment is designed for anyone who is new to risk assessment work. It covers the principles of risk assessment, data sources and evaluation of quality and reliability. It also covers how we link hazard data to exposure assessment and interpret the result. May 27th 2020. Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes £170 /pp (early bird discount)

Introduction to Toxicology & Human Health Risk Assessment  – for those of you who would like to attend a more detailed course which covers both toxicology and human health risk assessment. (6 hours total  split over three individual sessions), June 9th, 10th 11th June. Times: 1430-1630 (UK time)  £349 /pp (early bird discount)

Contact: For more details either click on the link or contact me at [email protected] Tel: +44(0)7985 923707




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