Poison, Murder and Deception

Concern about the contents of a container of rat poison was expressed in this Written Parliamentary question in 1953, but it would take another 10 years before any action followed from Government as this further question reveals.

Further research by swanwatch reveals some interesting information in The National Archives about the 1963 legislation concerning white phosphorus rat poison. The Association of Municipal corporations noted

“It is generally agreed that phosphorus is cruel in its effect. It can be purchased in compound form by the general public from chemists and when used by the layman and a sub-lethal dose administered, can inflict extreme pain not only in rodents but other animals which might have access to baits haphazardly put down.”

An Information brief provided to the then Home Office Parliamentary undersecretary during drafting of the legislation noted “It produces gastro-intestinal symptoms and   appears to cause rats intense abdominal pain, the victim suffering convulsions and diarrehoea. According to the Oxford Bureau of Animal Population, phosphorus causes great suffering during a period of from two to seven days. Phosphorus is not recommended by The Ministry of Agriculture.”

Not surprisingly, the legislation drew criticism from vested interest business organisations, principally Rentokil laboratories, the main manufacturers of rodenticides, and the Industrial Pest Control Association, (affiliated to the Association of British Chemical Manufacturers)- an organisation which included Albright and Wilson. They wanted more time to dispose of stocks and believed that banning this form of poison quite bizarrely would be a “risk to public health” caused by an increase in the rat population- no mention however of the risk which their poison was already causing to human health and the environment where it would have been dumped.

National Archives HO 285/47

In “The shocking history of phosphorus- a biography of the Devil’s element” John Emsley describes several documented instances where the use of Rentokil’s Rodine rat poison was used for murderous purposes. We have looked in more detail at one such case.

“Rodine consisted of a paste of bran and molasses (also known as black treacle) with 2 per cent phosphorus in a finely divided form. A tin of the rat poison weighed one ounce (28g) and contained ten grains (650 mg) of phosphorus; a teaspoon would provide a fatal dose.

Rodine was sold in shallow tins, similar to those used for shoe polish, and these were opened and left where rats could find them. These creatures were undeterred by the characteristic odour of phosphorus and, once a rat has eaten something, that substance has to pass through the body (as we have noted) because rats are unable to vomit. It was recommended that a bowl of water be provided near by so that the creature would when suffering from the extreme thirst that phosphorus could produce, return to it to drink and die. The ploy in using phosphorus to kill a person, as opposed to a rat, lay in disguising it’s smell and flavour from the intended victim.”

Rodine phosphorus rat poison  cost 1/6 (then 7p) and the box clearly states “Yellow Phosphorus 2%: Inert Ingredients 98%.”

Adverts making fake claims by the company Thomas Harley Limited of Perth Scotland- manufacturers of Rodine (“safe to use where animals have access-only kills rats”) were easily found in newspapers.

 Historically white phosphorus rat poison was also a common suicide poison, with “Battles vermin killer” a notorious substance, most notably connected to the story of a Welsh tramp whose body was used by the British Intelligence in “Operation Mincemeat” during the Second World War . Phosphide in the mixture had reacted with hydrochloric acid in his stomach producing toxic phosphine gas- the perfect deception as is explained by the coroner William Bentley Purchases report to the Intelligence officers in which we learn more important facts about this chemical on Glyndwr Michael.

“MINCEMEAT took a minimal dose of rat poison containing phosphorus. This dose was not sufficient to kill him outright and its only effect was to impair the functioning of the liver that he died a little time afterwards. The amount of phosphorus that he took was almost certainly so small that it would have taken a first rate post mortem, even at that stage, to trace the cause of death.  

Apart from the smallness of the dose the next point is that phosphorus is not one of the poisons readily traceable after long periods, such as arsenic, which invades the roots of the hair e.t.c, or strychnine. In addition, any investigator would have the difficulty that there is normally a certain amount of phosphorus in the human body….

Mr Bentley Purchases view is that any attempt to find the cause of death at this stage would not be a question for a pathologist but rather one for a highly skilled medico-criminal-chemist who would have to weigh all the chemical compositions of every organ before he could come to any conclusion…”

Montague to Bevan, re “mincemeat” 28th May 1943, paras 2,3,7, Cab 154/67

The total “phosphorus in the human body” referred to in this report is not elemental white phosphorus, and this distinction should never be confused- as those who would like to deceive about this chemical have attempted to do.

Such difficulties in identification of white phosphorus should be noted when trying to “prove cause of death” in dead wildfowl on Rattlechain lagoon, whose deaths after  drowning after being poisoned by this toxic chemical is clearly hampered by its evanescence.

More recently there have been many documented cases of the controversial “smokescreen” military use of white phosphorus and the effects on civilians in the gulf wars and recently in Gaza. Claims of birth defects witnessed in children in the area have yet to be conclusively substantiated but are of note. What we are “told” and what is withheld appears to be inextricably linked to this inherently evil chemical, which either through its direct use or agency has spread nothing but misery and deceit wherever it has been released on those who have had the misfortune to come into contact with it.