The Friday Fillip: Venom and Vanity

Here’s an incongruity — at least it seems so to me.

The world’s most expensive substance is used in one of the most trivial ways possible.

The substance? Botulinum toxin, commonly known as Botox. The BBC says it costs £100 trillion (C$182 trillion) per kilo — yes, that’s trillion. And people buy it to inject into their faces so that (they think) we won’t think they’re as old as they really are. Moreover, a third branch in the incongruity (if such things can have a tertium quid) is the fact that gram for gram it’s the deadliest substance known to us. And people buy it to inject into their faces so that (they think) we won’t think they’re as old as they really are.

Of course, Botox has valuable medical uses as well, but it’s the vanity trade that brings in the greatest share of the roughly $2,000,000,000.00 in revenue that Allergan makes from Botox alone.

In a way there’s nothing new about this mix of vanity and venom. Arsenic, for example, has long been used to enhance the presentation of self, and can be found today in some eyeliner, apparently, even though it, too, is a deadly poison. (For an interesting example see an article on the Styrian toxicophagi — the arsenic eaters of Austria.) There’s a measure for these things — for the lethality of a particular substance. It’s called the “median lethal dose” or LD50; and, as I understand it, it’s a statistical measure of the dose required to kill 50% of the subject population over a certain period of time, and it’s expressed as the mass of the substance against the mass of the ingesting body, typically g/kg. Sugar, for example, has an LD50 of 29.7, i.e. lethal at just under 30 grams per kilogram of body mass for half the group ingesting the dosage; caffeine comes in at 0.192; and arsenic at around 0.013. (Botox, as I’ve said, is at the very bottom — or top, depending on how you see this — at 1 nanogram/kilogram.) A toxicity scale of various substances is available on Wikipedia.

For a rather more diffuse illustration of this sort of incongruity, let me introduce you to C3 and C4 plants. It seems that photosynthesis, that marvel of solar consumption, is rather inefficient. For one thing, green is the wrong colour for plants if they want to suck up as much light as possible: black should have been the old normal. Chugging along on green, plants will convert only 0.2% of available solar energy into a product of photosynthesis — typically carbon. Most plants are classified as C3, fixing carbon in a particular way. However, some relatively few plants are of the C4 variety, fixing carbon in a slightly different and marginally more efficient way. Two of the commonest C4 plants are sugar cane and corn. Sugar cane, for example, can turn as much as 8% of available solar radiation into chemicals.

Sugar and corn are two of the most consumed agricultural products in North America, if not the two most consumed. And, it must be said, efficient though these plants may be (or because they’re efficient) they are two of the most socially dangerous products that are grown, sugar — from cane and from corn — being the latest and greatest dietary villain, and corn the oppressively ubiquitous monoculture. (See, e.g., the film documentary King Corn, available online.)

Most valuable, most consumed, most deadly, most profitable . . . . life at the extremes.

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