Cyanide death


By Eugenie Samuel The mystery surrounding the deaths of over 500 valuable thoroughbred foals in Kentucky has taken another twist, this time putting cyanide in the frame. The first autopsy results on miscarried fetuses reveal features characteristic of cyanide poisoning. Cyanide causes its victims to gasp for air in vigorous death throes. Animal pathologist Lenn Harrison of the University of Kentucky says the foals’ bodies and lungs are covered in small lesions as if they had struggled and attempted to breathe in the womb. Until Thursday, the investigative team had been concentrating on zearalenone, a fungal toxin that mimics estrogen and might adversely affect pregnancies. Tests indicated that levels of zearelanone might be elevated in Eastern Tent Caterpillars that live near pastures where affected mares were grazing. But Harrison announced late on Thursday that a sample of caterpillars frozen on 20 April, shortly before the first foal death was reported, tested positive for cyanide. “And the changes we see in utero are highly suggestive, ” he told hundreds of concerned farmers and racing industry representatives gathered at the Kenneland Center in Lexington. Several thousand people also watched the session online. Anecdotal evidence from vets and farmers had already linked affected farms to cherry trees, which are hosting a large crop of Eastern Tent caterpillars this year. Cherry trees produce a glucoside called prunasin, which contains a chemical cyanide group that binds to oxygen in mammalian tissues, causing suffocation. Harrison said he did not know how the caterpillars or their excrement might have got into the horses. During large infestations, Eastern Tent caterpillars migrate from their preferred home, wild cherry trees,
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