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Why Is It So Easy to Slip Someone Antifreeze?

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Last week Texas oncologist Ana Maria Gonzalez-Angulo was charged with aggravated assault after attempting to poison her lover and fellow doctor George Blumenschein with ethylene glycol—the toxic main ingredient of antifreeze—that she slipped into his coffee. Plenty of other people have used similar plots for murder, and the most recent Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers counted 6241 unintentional ethylene glycol poisonings in 2011. Why don’t any of these people realize they’re eating poison?

To his credit, Dr. Blumenschein appears to be one person who did notice something was off. He normally took his coffee black, but noticed that the cup Gonzalez-Angulo served him was sweet. When he asked for a different one, but she insisted he finish the one he’d been given and that she’d just put a little Splenda in it. This helps illustrate why antifreeze poisoning is so common and often successful: Ethylene glycol tastes pretty good for something that can kill you.

Ethylene glycol is syrupy, odorless, and sweet-tasting, which makes it easy to mix into coffee, tea, soda, and juice drinks undetected. Even in accidental exposures where the toxin isn’t masked by other flavors, the sweet taste doesn’t set off any alarm bells the way other, bitter toxins do, and people and pets may not notice anything is wrong.

The toxin primarily affects the nervous system and the kidneys, causing headaches, slurred speech, dizziness, nausea and—as the body metabolizes it into other toxins—potentially fatal kidney dysfunction and failure. A dose of around a third of a cup can be lethal.

To help prevent ethylene glycol poisonings, some states require that ingredients be added to antifreeze to make it bitter-tasting and unpalatable. Last year a number of antifreeze and automotive coolant makers agreed to voluntarily add bittering agents to their products even where not required by law. Once the new, grosser products hit the shelves, would-be murderers will have to go back to the drawing board and find another yummy poison (unless they can get pure ethylene glycol, often used in labs like Gonzalez-Angulo’s). In the meantime, I wonder if this case will inspire copycat crimes, like those the Georgia Poison Center saw after the high-profile ethylene glycol poisoning of a police officer and the televised trial of his wife.

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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