Ever Onward; a Toxicological Tale

by Alan B. Combs

Alan once again steps forward from the shadows in Callahans where he has been drinking a Samuel Smith Imperial Stout. He gestures to Alamus to come on over.

“Very few folks commented on my terrible $$Alan’s Make Money Fast$$ pun posted a week or so ago. I suspect two reasons, my lad, either there are many automatic kill files keyed to dollar signs, or the thing just wasn’t funny. What do you think, Alamus?”

Alamus knows what the answer is. However, being the kindly creature that he is, and being cursed with a deep nasal capacity to sense stinkers, Alamus is somewhat puzzled as to how he should respond.

Alan takes him off the hook, saying, “Oh well. Let’s try again.

“There have been several different threads recently talking about teachers and their problems and rewards. I teach an undergraduate elective in toxicology, a very elementary survey course in which we talk of general principles, environmental and other toxicological concerns, and emergency treatment of poisoning. As frequently happens at the beginning of the semester, the students take notes furiously, with nothing very much permanent happening anywhere between their ears and their pencils. When this starts to occur, I drop into the following story. It starts off with an element of truth, but takes an evil turn somewhere in the middle. Many of the students get it all written down before they realize they have been had.

“Industrial toxicology is a special subdiscipline of toxicology. Workers in synthetic chemical plants sometimes get exposed to higher concentration of substances than do the general public. Several adverse clinical effects have been first discovered in plant workers. This should not happen, but when it does the information is very useful to the rest of us.

“An example happened about ten years or so ago at a plant in which the chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticide Kepone was being synthesized. Because of industrial competition, many different insecticides have been produced, but Kepone was one of the really bad ones. Unlike DDT and many (most) of the others, Kepone turned out to be a carcinogen. This was discovered in plant workers who were discovered to have increases in certain tumors. This discovery quickly killed Kepone as a viable commercial entity.

“The compound also had a much more obscure toxicity. As sometimes, but rarely, occurs with certain barbiturates and related compounds, the insecticide caused a severe type of drug automatism. (Drug automatism is drug-induced behavior that is repetitive, but not related to conscious behavior.) The effect was first seen in the people that delivered Kepone from the factory to repackaging plants where large quantities were divided into smaller packages for wholesale and retail sales. The drug automatism was manifested by the drivers of the delivery trucks. They would keep on driving, never stopping, sometimes for days until their diesel fuel would run out. Later, they would be found in their vehicles, still with hands on the steering wheel, the pedal still to the metal, and country music still on the radio. Eventually enough of these poor folks were discovered by the roadside for the epidemiologists at the Center for Disease Control to realize that there was an actual clinical entity here, and it quickly became known as the Kepone Truckin’ Syndrome.”

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