Why Is It So Easy to Slip Someone Antifreeze?

iStock / stevanovicigor
iStock / stevanovicigor

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.

What's the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

iStock/flySnow
iStock/flySnow

It may not be easy for some people to admit, but certain national holidays often get a little muddled—namely, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees the confusion often enough that they spelled out the distinction on their website. The two days are held six months apart: Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11, and Memorial Day takes place on the last Monday of May as part of a three-day weekend with parades and plenty of retail sales promotions. You probably realize both are intended to acknowledge the contributions of those who have served in the United States military, but you may not recall the important distinction between the two. So what's the difference?

Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was first observed on November 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution making it an annual observance in 1926. It became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize veterans of the two world wars. The intention is to celebrate all military veterans, living or dead, who have served the country, with an emphasis on thanking those in our lives who have spent time in uniform.

We also celebrate military veterans on Memorial Day, but the mood is more somber. The occasion is reserved for those who died while serving their country. The day was first observed in the wake of the Civil War, where local communities organized tributes around the gravesites of fallen soldiers. The observation was originally called Decoration Day because the graves were adorned with flowers. It was held May 30 because that date wasn't the anniversary for any battle in particular and all soldiers could be honored. (The date was recognized by northern states, with southern states choosing different days.) After World War I, the day shifted from remembering the fallen in the Civil War to those who had perished in all of America's conflicts. It gradually became known as Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May to organize a three-day weekend beginning in 1971.

The easiest way to think of the two holidays is to consider Veterans Day a time to shake the hand of a veteran who stood up for our freedoms. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who are no longer around to receive your gratitude personally.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Is the Kitchen Like on the International Space Station?

iStock/Elen11
iStock/Elen11

Clayton C. Anderson:

The International Space Station (ISS) does not really have a "kitchen" as many of us here on Earth might relate to. But, there is an area called the "galley" which serves the purpose of allowing for food preparation and consumption. I believe the term "galley" comes from the military, and it was used specifically in the space shuttle program. I guess it carried over to the ISS.

The Russian segment had the ONLY galley when I flew in 2007. There was a table for three, and the galley consisted of a water system—allowing us to hydrate our food packages (as needed) with warm (tepid) or hot (extremely) water—and a food warmer. The food warmer designed by the Russians was strictly used for their cans of food (about the size of a can of cat food in America). The U.S. developed a second food warmer (shaped like a briefcase) that we could use to heat the more "flexibly packaged" foodstuffs (packets) sent from America.

Later in the ISS lifetime, a second galley area was provided in the U.S. segment. It is positioned in Node 1 (Unity) and a table is also available there for the astronauts' dining pleasures. Apparently, it was added because of the increasing crew size experienced these days (6), to have more options. During my brief visit to ISS in 2010 (12 days or so) as a Discovery crewmember, I found the mealtimes to be much more segregated than when I spent five months on board. The Russians ate in the Russian segment. The shuttle astronauts ate in the shuttle. The U.S. ISS astronauts ate in Node 1, but often at totally different times. While we did have a combined dinner in Node 1 during STS-131 (with the Expedition 23 crew), this is one of the perceived negatives of the "multiple-galley" scenario. My long duration stint on ISS was highlighted by the fact that Fyodor Yurchikhin, Oleg Kotov, and I had every single meal together. The fellowship we—or at least I—experienced during those meals is something I will never, ever forget. We laughed, we argued, we celebrated, we mourned …, all around our zero-gravity "dinner table." Awesome stuff!

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Clayton "Astro Clay" Anderson is an astronaut, motivational speaker, author, and STEAM education advocate.

His award-winning book The Ordinary Spaceman, Astronaut Edition Fisher Space Pen, and new children's books A is for Astronaut; Blasting Through the Alphabet and It's a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut's Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions are available at www.AstroClay.com. For speaking events www.AstronautClayAnderson.com. Follow @Astro_Clay #WeBelieveInAstronauts

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