Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas

December 16, 2017

It’s the most poisonous time of the year

The winter holiday season brings well-wishes but also warnings: crime spikes in late December. While we often focus on the Grinch-like stealing of presents, such property crimes are not the only type of misdeed that mars the merriment: foul fare and treacherous tipples have spoiled many a holiday celebration. Here are two stories of nightmares before (and after) Christmas…

A lethal libation

The sweet, spiced, boozy beverages of winter are an enjoyable way to combat the cold, toast the season… and deliver an unpleasant chemical surprise. With its red colour, bubbles and sweetness, cherry Lambrini is a popular tipple. It’s also a good disguise for the ‘sweet killer’, ethylene glycol.1 On Christmas Day 2013 in London, UK, Jacqueline Patrick spiked her husband Douglas’ glass with antifreeze containing the deadly substance – at the urging of the couple’s daughter, Katherine.

For all its sugary flavour, ethylene glycol is a sinister molecule. As it is similar in structure to ethanol (drinking alcohol), ethylene glycol intoxication impacts a drinker much like overindulging on spirits, resulting in inebriation, with central nervous and respiratory depression. The gastrointestinal system also responds, with victims feeling nausea and possibly vomiting.

The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states: ‘following absorption, 80% or more of ethylene glycol is chemically converted by the body into toxic compounds.’ Like ethanol, ethylene glycol is metabolised by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, chiefly in the liver. Here, ethylene glycol’s four sequential metabolites – glycoaldehyde, glycolic acid, glyoxylic acid and finally oxalic acid – begin to wreak havoc, which can lead to acidosis (acid build-up) and kidney failure.

Oxalic acid results in one of tell-tale signs of ethylene glycol poisoning. The acid reacts with calcium in blood plasma to form insoluble calcium oxalate monohydrate crystals, which are easy to spot using various types of microscopy in urine8 and a kidney biopsy. Being able to spot crystals is a bad sign: they gum up the works of the kidneys’ proximal tubules, severely limiting tubular flow and leading to necrosis.

Douglas Patrick drank around two and a half glasses of the spiked drink before he became ill and collapsed the next day. Fortunately, his wife’s attempt to kill him was thwarted by her own actions. Jacqueline Patrick called for an ambulance – then swiftly gave them a typed ‘do not resuscitate’ request. Supposedly from Douglas, the note requested to be allowed to die with ‘dignaty’ [sic]. The paramedics and police found the this, along with other behaviours (such as searching for antifreeze poisoning on the internet and a previous attempt to murder her husband in October), highly suspicious.

Tipped off, medical staff recognised the clinical presentations of ethylene glycol poisoning and instituted an aggressive treatment plan prior to subsequent confirmatory results. Douglas Patrick pulled through – after an induced coma and a year of physiotherapy. Jacqueline Patrick pleaded guilty to two attempted murder charges and was jailed for 15 years, while Katherine Patrick admitted inciting another to administer a noxious substance and was imprisoned for three years.

A poisoned pudding

Eight decades earlier, in 1936, and over 10,000 miles away in West Brunswick, Australia, another festive murder attempt came when Harry and Margaret Sumbler received a Christmas pudding in the post. Delectable deliveries are a winter holiday tradition, so Margaret probably thought nothing of popping a bite in her mouth. Upon tasting its bitterness, she spat it out. Harry then ‘gave about a teaspoonful to his dog, which died soon afterward.’

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