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 Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Antoninapotapenko/iStock via Getty Images
Antoninapotapenko/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25 and ends on January 5. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Tevarak/iStock via Getty Images
Tevarak/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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