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Man Poisons Himself by Taking Apricot Kernels to Treat Cancer

Many believe these seeds can fight cancer, but there’s no scientific evidence to back up the claim

An apricot seed and the kernels found within them (Richard Huber / Wikimedia)
smithsonian.com

Debates have long raged among medical professionals and patients about the effectiveness of vitamins and natural supplements. There is sketchy evidence at best for many of these natural cures—and some are downright dangerous. A recently documented medical case highlights these hazards of self-treatment, documenting an otherwise healthy man who poisoned himself by eating apricot kernels.

The case started when a 67-year-old retired Australian man who came to a hospital for routine surgery baffled his doctors with the low blood oxygen levels, reports Lara Pearce for HuffPost Australia. He was in remission for prostate cancer and otherwise seemed to be healthy. The man told his doctors that he even biked 50 miles a week.

After conducting a battery of tests, doctors were stunned to find high levels of cyanide in the man's blood, reports Andrew Masterson for Cosmos. Yes cyanide, the poison that can kill a person in minutes if taken in high-enough doses. Luckily for the patient, the poison was present in "moderate" amounts: 1.6 milligrams of cyanide per liter of the man's blood. This is below the 2.5 milligrams per liter mark that can put a person into a permanent coma, Masterson reports. 

The man was not trying to slowly poison himself, it turns out, it was rather the opposite—he had been eating apricot kernels and kernel supplements for the past five years in a bid to help keep his prostate cancer in remission, reports Alessandra Potenza for The Verge. The seeds inside apricots that resemble almonds have been trumpeted as a miraculous natural cure for cancers. The toxicity of the cynaide supposedly kills off the cancer cells. But that is not the case, reports Potenza. The poison is just as toxic to healthy cells as it is to cancerous ones. The case was published this week in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

The apricot kernels themselves don't have cyanide in them, but upon digestion the body converts a compound called laetrile into the poison. And despite the claims of some natural health practitioners, no existing studies have been found that meet scientific standards for proving that laetrile actually helps combat cancer, reports Rae Johnston for Gizmodo Australia

"Physicians should be aware that self-prescription with complementary medicines can result in potentially harmful toxicities, and may be more common [than] currently understood," the doctors write in their study. They urge medical professionals to ask their patients about all supplements and other remedies they may be consuming.

The man at the center of this case was allowed to leave the hospital. But despite all of the evidence presented to him, he has decided to continue on self-treating with apricot kernels, reports Potenza.

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