From Arafat To Euthanasia, When Death By Poison Is The Prime Suspect

Apple seeds are poisonous... Some more than others
Apple seeds are poisonous... Some more than others
Pia Heinemann

BERLIN - Yes, he has investigated cases of murder by poisoning, says Burkhard Madea.

The forensic pathologist at the University of Bonn, an expert in unexplained causes of death, recalls "a series of deaths about 20 years ago when a nurse deliberately gave old, helpless patients the wrong medication. The victims all died suddenly, but there was only one autopsy.” When the procedure revealed that the victim had been poisoned, five other bodies were exhumed; autopsies revealed they had all been murdered.

Poisoning deaths can be established years after a person dies. Skeletons and body residues can shed light on a person’s death long after it occurs. The subject is topical in light of on-going examinations of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s remains.

Twenty years after his death, former Turkish president Turgut Özal was also recently exhumed. Prosecutors ordered the procedure after witnesses reported suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.

Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman reported last week that experts at the Adli Tip Kurumu Institute of Forensic Sciences had found four toxic substances in Özal’s remains, including high amounts of DDT and traces of radioactive polonium.

"Finding traces of poison in the remains of somebody who’s been dead for a long time depends strongly on just how long, and under what conditions, the person has been in the ground," Dr. Madea says. A corpse in cool, dry conditions is usually better preserved than one in wet or damp conditions. Dr. Madea adds that experts also always take soil samples in case the substances stem from the soil.

And of course the poisons still have to be in the remains – "traces of substances like gas or narcotics that are inhaled disappear very quickly," says Dietrich Mebs, a toxicologist at the University of Frankfurt for over 40 years.

It is different with radioactive poisons like the polonium that was used to kill Russian secret agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Depending on the decay period and dosage, their presence can be proved long after death.

"In the 19th and 20th centuries, arsenic, thallium and E605 parathion were often used," says Madea. "But they’re not so widely available anymore, so you don’t see them used in murders anymore."

Proof is in the pudding

Dietrich Mebs remembers an attempted murder case from 30 years ago." A man wanted to poison his wife, so he mixed cyanide in her pudding but it smelled so awful the wife realized what was going on and called the police. They brought us the pudding to test."

However, without suspicion of foul play in a person’s death, there is no forensic examination. And if there is suspicion, the lab work has to be rigorous. "In forensic medicine and specialized labs, ways of proving the presence of poison are getting ever more refined," says pathologist Madea.

"You can detect tiny amounts of poison and then calculate how much the person had in their body at the time of death – and if in fact the poison could be a cause of death." This applies to both artificial substances as well as natural poisons.

Substances in the tissues are examined using high-pressure liquid chromatography or mass spectrometers. "Once I had a case where a man used snake venom to kill his mother-in-law,” says Mebs.

"The woman, who was quite old, had a fixed stare, and then suddenly died. Nothing unusual at her age, except that neighbors had observed that the son, who was not on good terms with her, had been hugging her a lot lately."

That seemed so unlikely that it aroused suspicion and an autopsy was conducted that revealed a pinprick hole in the woman’s shoulder. "The police found the equipment the man used to prepare the poison in his apartment."

Euthanasia – or poisoning?

A relatively new phenomenon is poisonings in hospitals and nursing homes – and, apparently, they aren’t all that rare. Since the 1970s, there have been many cases where nurses have killed off their patients out of greed or for attention. "All a nurse has to do, for example, is increase the dose of a patient’s blood-pressure medication; the patient will die from drug overdose," explains Dr. Madea.

Cases of poisoning in clinic or nursing home circumstances are particularly challenging to criminologists – as they are exceptionally hard to solve. Sick, older patients may be taking a great deal of medication, with many different substances. Both patients and those looking after them can easily lose oversight, making the situation easily exploitable. "But you do need the requisite amount of knowledge to do so successfully," Mebs points out: "Luckily, not all too many people possess it."

Mebs also points out that new medication is generally safer than older preparations. "Modern sleeping aids, for example, don’t contain any derivatives of barbituric acid so you can’t use them to commit suicide, much less kill someone. That ingredient in first generation sleeping aids led to many accidents and deaths. To all intents and purposes, modern sleeping aids are non-toxic.”

Murder by poison has traditionally been considered a favorite for women killers. However, says Dr. Madea: "Just as many men use poison to kill as women do.” Although there are no precise figures, "it is estimated that every year about 1,000 murders go undetected as such, and a large portion of those are probably murders by poison."

The only way to fight that, he says, is for doctors filling out death certificates to pay closer attention and particularly with older patients not simply automatically write “death from natural causes.”

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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