Cancer Causing Plants-Straight Out Of Science Fiction

Aristolochia

Recently I stumbled upon an article detailing the attributes of a plant named Aristolochia and why its so infamous. Apparently,it is a well known carcinogenic plant genus meaning it has been earmarked as a known source of cancer causing substances. But what really troubled me is the fact that it is most widely used as an active ingredient in ‘Herbal Remedies’ and in weight-loss supplements. Now that’s scary because many of us are prone to exposure to this plant’s derivative in some way or the other.

But that was not the end of it. As my curiosity took hold, I was compelled to try and gather more knowledge on the concerned subject. To my surprise,I found that it is in fact the subject of many researches that are currently in progress.And the outcome so far is appalling as new plants are being discovered which show active carcinogenic compound presence in their distinct parts like leaves, or stem.

An excerpt from an article stated the following:

Zeng Yi, a researcher at the Chinese Institute of Epidemic Diseases Prevention and Treatment, has discovered 52 varieties of plants containing cancer-causing substances in a study of 1,693 herbs and plants. He said many ornamentals that people were familiar with had a substance called Epsteln-Barr that could induce cancer antigen virus.     Epsteln-Barr could induce the EB virus to transform lymphocyte, which then grew into a tumor, said Zeng. The plants could even spread toxins in the soil

In the article,its mentioned that many common ornamental plants like touch-me-not and Crotons do show a potential tendency to cause nasal cancer,as was reported in Guangzhou region of China. Although a plant named Oil Drum has been essentially blamed for being the prime source of carcinogens in the region.

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Touch-Me-Not

As I further progressed onto my little adventure,I came across more names: African Milkbush and Sassafras among many others.

Sassafras

Sassafras

The sticky sap of the African Milkbush is viewed as a potentially important cause of Burkitt’s lymphoma – the most common childhood cancer in much of Africa. The sticky,white sap of the plant,often used traditionally in Africa for making herbal medicines and glue,has been found to increase the activity of Epstein-Barr virus which is known to induce cancer in its victims. Sassafras which is routinely used in making herbal tea is suspected to be a carcinogen.

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African Milkbush (Euphorbia tirucalli)

Well at this stage,we can infer that certain harmful chemicals in nature are bound to be present,so that they may be carcinogenic is not something extraordinary. However,I was able to confirm the existence of an alternate explanation which is both logical and scientific. As pointed out in the hyper-linked article here,

But it’s clear that plants contain many compounds that are meant to deter humans and animals from eating them, like cellulose in stems and bitter-tasting tannins in leaves and beans we use to make teas and coffees, and their impact needs to be assessed.

Thus,plants are much more resilient and adaptive than we can possible comprehend and that too at a very deep level. It has been scientifically confirmed that certain grass species in pre-historic grasslands used to deposit silica based compounds on their edges to injure any herbivore attempting to eat them.This alone lead to the extinction of many herbovore species. Also plants are able to communicate with each other through exchange of gases about any incoming herbivore. All such behaviour point out to the extremely sophisticated nature of plant-life.

Hence I’ll go ahead and conjecture at this point that this could very well be an active defence mechanism deployed by plants to prevent their consumption. If its true then the most intriguing of all questions would be as to what levels of lethality the plants can develop carcinogenic compounds in thier bodies  and to what extent are they going to be successful if such a biological hostility is perhaps real. Also are we going to find more such adaptations in common plants too,especially those which are nutritionally important, in the future?
I hope my fears(and conjectures) would be proven wrong. But then again,just like we fight for our survival,plants do it too. So my hypothesis is worthy of a thought or two.

I conclude by pointing out that one must be very cautious while making use of any plant or plant based product whose dietary and nutritional impact is not well documented. Such things often make their way into dietary supplements,’Herbal'(this word though pleasant to the ear is deceptive!) preparations and concoctions ,drugs and tonics and any product claiming to have ‘healing properties’. So beware! Even if their cancer causing nature is not established they may turn out to be simply poisonous and affect you adversely. Rest lies in the hands of mother nature and scientists!
Croton-common Ornamental Plant

Croton-Common Ornamental Plant