A few days ago it was sunny and slightly breezy outside (yes, it’s August, but I live in the UK – this isn’t as common as you might imagine) and I thought, I should make the most of this and do something about my orchids.
Now, anyone that reads this blog regularly will know that my Dad is a horticulturist. I, however, am not. My fascination with bright colours, interesting smells and complicated naming conventions went down the chemistry route. But I am, oddly, quite good with Phalaenopsis, aka, moth orchids. I don’t really know why, or how, but I seem to have come to some sort of agreement with the ones that live on my kitchen windowsill. It goes along the lines of: I’ll water you once a week, and you make flowers a couple of times a year, and we’ll otherwise leave each other alone, okay?
Well, this was fine for years, until we somehow acquired an infestation of scale bugs. These tiny but extremely annoying pests feed by sucking sap from leaves of plants, and they excrete a sticky substance called honeydew. Trust me, it’s not as nice as it sounds. Firstly, it really is sticky, and makes a horrible mess not just of the orchid leaves, but also the area around the plants.
Then it turns out that certain types of mould just love this stuff, so you end up with black spots on the leaves. And, not surprisingly, all this weakens the plant.
This stuff is a vegetable oil from the seeds of the Azadirachta indica, or neem, tree. It has a musty, nutty sort of smell, and is fairly easy to buy.
It’s indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and has been historically important in traditional medicine. In fact, The Sanskrit name of this evergreen tree is ‘Arishtha’, which means ‘reliever of sickness’.
So it’s a natural vegetable oil and people have been using it as a remedy for thousands of years – must be totally safe, right? Right?
Well… I’ve said it before, but some of the very best horribly toxic things are entirely natural, and neem is yet another example. Ingestion of significant quantities can cause metabolic acidosis (finally, something that really does have the potential to change blood pH! Er… but not… in a good way), kidney failure, seizures, and brain damage in children. Skin contact can cause contact dermatitis. It’s been shown to work as a contraceptive and, more problematically, it’s a known abortifacient (causes miscarriage).
All this said, as always, the dose make the poison.
One case study in the Journal of The Association of Physicians of India reported on a 36-year-old man who swallowed 30–50 ml (about three tablespoons) of neem oil, in the hope of treating the corns on his feet. As far as I can tell, it didn’t help his corns. It did cause vomiting, drowsiness, a dangerous drop in blood pH and seizures. There’s no specific antidote for neem poisoning, but the hospital managed his symptoms. Luckily, despite the hammering his kidneys undoubtedly took, he didn’t need dialysis, and was discharged from hospital after just over a week.
Now, okay, you’re unlikely to accidentally swallow three tablespoons of any oil, especially not neem which does have quite a strong, not entirely pleasant, smell and (reportedly – I haven’t tried for obvious reasons) a bitter taste. But nevertheless, it’s wise to be cautious, particularly around children who have a smaller body mass and therefore are much more likely to suffer serious effects – up to and including death. In one reported case, a mother gave a 3-month-old child a teaspoon of neem oil in the hope of curing his indigestion – fortunately he survived, but not without some seriously scary symptoms.Okay, so those are the dangers. Let’s talk chemistry. The Pakistani organic chemist Salimuzzaman Siddiqui is thought to be the first scientist to formally investigate the various compounds in neem oil. In 1942 he extracted three compounds, and identified nimbidin as the main antibacterial substance in neem. He was awarded an OBE in 1946 for his discoveries.
I will confess, at this point, to running into a little bit of confusion with the nomenclature. Nimbidin is described, in some places at least, as a mixture of compounds (collectively, tetranortriterpenes) rather than a single molecule. But either way, it has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties – at least in rats.
Another of the probably-mostly-good substances in neem is nimbin: a triterpenoid which is reported to have a whole range of positive properties, including acting as an anti-inflammatory, an antipyretic, a fungicide, an antiseptic and even as an antihistamine. Interestingly, I went looking for safety data on nimbin, and I couldn’t find much. That could mean it’s safe, or it could mean it just hasn’t been extensively tested.The substance that seems to do most of the pesticide heavy lifting is azadirachtin. This is a limonoid (compounds that are probably best known for their presence in citrus fruits). It’s what’s called an antifeedant – a substance produced by plants to deter predators from munching on them. Well, mostly. Humans have a strange habit of developing a taste for plants that produce such substances. Take, for example, odoriferous garlic, clears-out-your-sinuses horseradish, and of course the daddy of them all: nicotine.
Azadirachtin is known to affect lots of species of insects, both by acting as an antifeedant and as a growth disruptor. Handily, it’s also biodegradable – and breaks down in a few days when exposed to light and water.
That makes it appealing as a potential pesticide, and it’s also generally described as having low toxicity in mammals – its reported LD50 tends to fall into the grams per kilogram range, which makes it “moderately to slightly toxic“. Wikipedia quotes a value (without a source, as I write this) of >3,540 mg/kg in rats.
But… I did find another page quoting 13 mg/kg in mice. That’s quite dramatically different, and would make it extremely/highly toxic. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my hands on the original source, so I haven’t been able to verify it’s not a transposition error.
Let’s assume it isn’t. It would be odd to have such a big difference between mice and rats. Things that poison mice tend to poison rats, too. There might be some confusion over pure azadirachtin vs. “neem extract” – it could be the case that the mixture of chemicals working together in neem create some sort of synergistic (toxic) effect – greater than the sum of all the individual substances. It could be an experimental error, including a contaminated neem sample, or something to do with the way the animals were exposed to the extract.
It’s difficult to say. Well, it’s difficult for me to say, because I don’t have access to all the primary sources. (Any toxicologists out there, please do feel free to weigh into the comments section!) But either way, as I’ve already mentioned, several case studies have fingered azadirachtin as one of the substances likely to be causing the well-reported nasty side effects.
If you’re asking this chemist? I say be careful with the stuff. If you decide to use it on your plants, keep it out of reach of children, and wear some good-quality disposable gloves while you’re handling it (I put some on after I took that photo back there). If you’re pregnant, or trying to become pregnant, the safest option is to not use it at all.
Which brings me to neem soap.
Yup. It’s sold as a “natural” treatment for skin conditions like acne. I won’t link to a specific brand, but it’s easy to find multiple retailers with a simple Google search. I looked at one selling soap bars for £6.99 a pop, containing 10% (certified organic, because of course) neem oil. Did I mention back there that neem is known to cause contact dermatitis? I’m fairly sure I did. None of the products I saw had obvious safety warnings, and I certainly found nothing about safety (or otherwise) for pregnant women.
Plus – worryingly, not least because children are more likely to get things in their mouth – you can also buy kids and babies versions, again purporting to contain 10% neem oil.
I even found neem toothpaste. Which… given people often swallow toothpaste… yikes.
Now again, and for the umpteenth time, the dose makes the poison. The case studies I’ve mentioned involved, at a minimum, swallowing a teaspoon of pure neem oil, and you’re not getting that sort of quantity from smears of toothpaste. But, at the same time, when it comes to pregnancy and babies, it’s generally sensible to apply a precautionary principle, especially for things like soap and toothpaste for which alternatives with well-established safety profiles exist.
Bottom line? Would I use these products? I would not.
But I do use neem to treat the scale bugs on my orchids, and they’re doing much better than they were. Fingers crossed for more flowers!
Do you want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not take a look at my fiction blog: the fiction phial? You can also find me doing various flavours of editor-type-stuff at the horror podcast, PseudoPod.org – so head over there, too!
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