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7 Surprising Ways Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You

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It's no secret that a lot of things in nature want to kill you. You're surely familiar with some of Mother Nature's more aggressive weapons: the cobra, the black widow, the volcano, the bright red toadstools. But what about the more subtle, rarer methods of execution? Death disguised in pretty rocks, beans, and beautiful sea creatures? Here are seven lesser-known natural assassins that may be lurking in your life.

1. On your patio: the castor bean plant

These plants are popular patio decorations in warmer regions of America. It's a beautiful plant during all stages of its bloom, at the end of which the bean (actually a seed) becomes a vibrant prickly flower. The real name of the castor bean plant is Ricinus communis. And its seeds are where the deadly poison ricin comes from. A lethal dose for humans is four to six seeds, which, unless treated, brings on a very slow and painful death (burning sensation in mouth and throat, abdominal pain, purging, and bloody diarrhea).

2. In your rock collection: Hutchinsonite

If hell were made up of one particular rock, it would probably be Hutchinsonite. Discovered by Arthur Hutchinson in 1904, Hutchinsonite is a mixture of sulphur, thallium, lead, and arsenic. Three of those four minerals are lethal to humans, and the fourth one, sulphur, isn't terribly pleasant either. Mindat, the largest mineral database on the internet, warns emphatically, "Avoid inhaling dust when handling or breaking. Never lick or ingest."

3. While on a tropical vacation: blue-ringed octopus

The blue-ringed octopus is just the sort of hallucinogenic beauty a scuba diver would hope to discover while exploring coral reefs off the coast of Australia. The tiny octopus (5 to 8 inches) actually looks quite plain until it is agitated, at which point it will become bright yellow with brilliant blue rings. It then begins to bite, producing a neurotoxic venom for which there is no anti-venom. Each octopus carries enough venom to kill 26 humans. The bites are tiny, and sometimes a diver might not even know he was bitten... until his heart stops and his lungs are paralyzed.

4. In your organic foods: hemlock

The poison hemlock family of plants includes some clever little killers. Hemlock has mastered the art of disguise. It is one of many wild "carrot" plants, most of which are harmless and often edible. It looks a lot like the harmless Queen Anne's lace, but hemlock will paralyze your respiratory muscles and kill you from lack of oxygen. Would you bet your life on which is which?

5. In the dirt: Coccidioides

In certain parts of southwestern America, even the dirt is trying to kill you. Well, not actually the dirt, but a fungus, called Coccidioides immitus, that lives in the dirt. This fungus is easily kicked up and made airborne, from construction, farming, wind, and earthquakes. When inhaled, the fungus produces an illness called cocci, or "valley fever." The good news is only about 5 percent of people infected with cocci actually develop the disease. But it can get ugly when they do. Without treatment, cocci can spread throughout the body, devouring everything it touches. It can cause skin ulcers, abscesses, bone lesions, severely swollen joints, heart inflammation, urinary tract problems, and meningitis, which can lead to death.

6. In your fish tank: palytoxin

Zoanthids are tiny little marine animals that like to live on coral and rocks. They live comfortably in some home aquariums and occasionally accumulate in seafood as well. And they are absolutely teeming with palytoxin, one of the more deadly poisons known to man. Should a person eat seafood that has ingested too many zoanthids, scrape an open wound across a zoanthid, or, as in one peculiar case, inhale palytoxin while trying to clean their aquarium, horrible things can happen. He will experience rhabdomyolysis. This means his skeletal muscles break down and the content of his cells will leak into the blood. The body begins, quite quickly, to suffer nearly every imaginable effect of poisoning, from kidney failure to prickling, burning skin. The cause behind most palytoxin death is heart failure.

7. On your hot springs vacation: hydrogen sulfide

Some people call it sewer gas; some just call it stink damp. When organic material decomposes (in sewers, swamps, or natural fertilizers) under the right conditions, it can produce a lethal gas called hydrogen sulfide. It is also produced when some sulfide minerals (like those lining the walls of natural wells and springs) are mixed with water. When this gas is released into the air, it can kill a person before he draws in his second breath of it. Even the natural warning, the rotten egg smell of sulphur, can't be counted on as hydrogen sulfide deadens the sense of smell. Not to mention it is also corrosive, flammable, and highly explosive. The good news is low exposure does little harm. The bad news is high exposure can come with little warning.

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London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel
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UK officials can't exactly transform the Whitechapel fatberg—a 143-ton trash mass lurking in London's sewer system—into treasure, but they can turn it into fuel. As The Guardian reports, Scottish biodiesel producer Argent Energy plans to convert parts of the noxious blockage into an environmentally friendly energy source.

For the uninitiated, fatbergs (which get their names from a portmanteau of "fat" and "icebergs") are giant, solid blobs of congealed fat, oil, grease, wet wipes, and sanitary products. They form in sewers when people dump cooking byproducts down drains, or in oceans when ships release waste products like palm oil. These sticky substances combine with floating litter to form what could be described as garbage heaps on steroids.

Fatbergs wash up on beaches, muck up city infrastructures, and are sometimes even removed with cranes from sewer pipes as a last resort. Few—if any—fatbergs, however, appear to be as potentially lethal as the one workers recently discovered under London's Whitechapel neighborhood. In a news release, private utility company Thames Water described the toxic mass as "one of the largest ever found, with the extreme rock-solid mass of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses."

Ick factor aside, the Whitechapel fatberg currently blocks a stretch of Victorian sewer more than twice the length of two fields from London's Wembley Stadium. Engineers with jet hoses are working seven days a week to break up the fatberg before sucking it out with tankers. But even with high-pressure streams, the job is still akin to "trying to break up concrete," says Matt Rimmer, Thames Water's head of waste networks.

The project is slated to end in October. But instead of simply disposing of the Whitechapel fatberg, officials want to make use of it. Argent Energy—which has in the past relied on sources like rancid mayonnaise and old soup stock—plans to process fatberg sludge into more than 2600 gallons of biodiesel, creating "enough environmentally friendly energy to power 350 double-decker Routemaster buses for a day," according to Thames Water.

"Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone," said company official Alex Saunders.

In addition to powering buses, the Whitechapel fatberg may also become an unlikely cultural touchstone: The Museum of London is working with Thames Water to acquire a chunk of the fatberg, according to BBC News. The waste exhibit will represent just one of the many challenges facing cities, and remind visitors that they are ultimately responsible for the fatberg phenomenon.

"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play," Rimmer says. "Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets, but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

[h/t The Guardian]

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Great Britain's Last Snow Patch Is About to Disappear Completely for the First Time in a Decade

Until recently, it was easy to find snow in Great Britain at any time of the year—you just had to know where to look. In previous Septembers, the island has been home to as many as 678 snow patches, residual pockets of snow and ice whose climates and topographies keep them frozen through the summer. This year, though, only two of Britain's snow patches have survived the summer. And the island is now on track to be completely snowless by the end of the season, Atlas Obscura reports.

Snow patches vary in size and durability, with some melting completely by late summer and others remaining a permanent fixture of the landscape. Garbh Choire Mor—a steep glacial depression on top of Scotland's third-highest mountain, Braeriach—contains two of the oldest snow patches in Britain, known as the Pinnacles and the Sphinx. The Pinnacles snow patch dissolved into a puddle earlier this month, and the Sphinx snow patch, the last surviving snow patch in Great Britain, is expected to do the same in the next few days.

Scotland experienced uncharacteristically hot weather this summer, with temperatures creeping into the low 90s as early as May. But more significant than the sweltering summer was the dry winter that preceded it. Below-average snowfall last year meant this year's snow patches were already smaller than usual when temperatures started heating up. If the Sphinx snow patch does vanish before winter arrives, it will mark the first time in over a decade and just the sixth time in the last 300 years that England, Scotland, and Wales are without a single patch of snow.

The Sphinx snow patch, though currently a measly version of its previous self, is still visible for now. But Iain Cameron, a veteran "snow patcher" who writes an annual report on snow for the UK's Royal Meteorological Society, says it could be gone as soon as Wednesday, September 20.

He's currently camped out on Garbh Choire Mor, waiting to document the patch's final moments. You can follow his updates on Twitter.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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