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Decoration plant, Dieffenbachia, is dangerous but not lethal

Photo Credit: TheJoyOfPlants 4 mins read

Claim: A post that has been forwarded many times on WhatsApp claims a houseplant is toxic and has killed a child.

Misleading. Yes, the Diffenbanchia plant exudes some toxic chemicals which might be injurious to health, but it is unlikely to cause death, and within minutes, as claimed in the message. 

Full Text

Individuals are encouraged to decorate their homes and environments with flowers for beauty, some health benefits and to protect the planet. But not all flowers can be planted at home or used in decorating the house. Some are toxic and dangerous and should not be kept in the home, especially in homes with young children and pets.

A social media image that has been forwarded many times on WhatsApp in Nigeria in September 2021 mentions that an individual’s son “died because he put a piece of the leaf in his mouth.” The writer notes that the plant, though common in many homes and offices, is “poisonous and dangerous” and that it can “kill a child in 1 minute and an adult in 15 minutes.” The message discourages people from touching their eyes after touching the plant as it could lead to permanent blindness.”

A screenshot of the viral WhatsApp image

Verification

Dubawa sent the image to two academics in the Botany Department of the University of Lagos, Nigeria (to confirm the name of the plant) and they both replied that it is called Dieffenbachia or Dumb Cane.

Dubawa did an image search using Google Reverse Image Search and TinEye. The results showed the specific image used in the post (without the accompanying text) and without providing any link to the initial post.

Doctored Image?

A first analysis of the image appears doctored as it does not appear to be from either Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The outlook of the image is not that of Facebook, while Twitter and Instagram do not have ‘share’ options. Twitter does not also have the ‘comment’ option. The origin of the image is not stated and also appears doctored.

All the same, Dubawa searched on Facebook and found a similar image but the image appears uploaded and shared to Facebook rather than an image with text created on it. A video with the same narrative was also shared on Facebook four years ago but it has only been viewed 159 times. Another long post with an attached video (on Facebook) has the wordings of the viral image as part of its long content. The image of the Dieffenbachia plant in the video is not the one in the viral image. The video was posted in 2017 with a comment, four shares and 48 likes.

Academic Opinion

An Associate Professor of Botany at the University of Lagos, Dr. Akeem Babalola Kadiri, told Dubawa that Dieffenbachia can make people who touch it and then touch themselves to itch and that it can also be poisonous.

Dr Temitope Onuminya, a Senior Lecturer, also in the Botany Department of the University of Lagos said Dieffenbachia “produces some toxic chemicals which might be injurious to health.” Dr Onuminya also said Dieffenbachia may be kept at home but it has to be done “with caution, especially where there are children who like to mouth everything around them.”

What Kind of Chemicals Does Dieffenbachia Produce?

Dr Onuminya told Dubawa that Dieffenbachia “produces sap (milky juice) on the leaf surface and the cells contain needle-shaped calcium oxalate crystals called raphides. So, if a leaf is chewed, these crystals can cause a temporary burning sensation, intense numbing, oral irritation, excessive drooling, and localised swelling.”

Why is it called Dumb Cane?

According to Trees.com, Dieffenbachia is called ‘Dumb Cane’ because, when chewed, it causes discomforts which “include difficulty swallowing and oral irritation, and these effects on the throat and mouth can render people speechless, or ‘struck dumb,’ hence the name Dumb Cane.”

Can Dieffenbachia Cause Death or Permanent Blindness?

Dr Onuminya told Dubawa that the majority of the discomforts caused by Dieffenbachia can be treated with “analgesic agents, antihistamines or medical charcoal. Patients who end up being hospitalised are those who ingest a high volume of the leaves, leading to severe swelling of the throat.” 

Dr Onuminya, however, stated that she does not have information that Dieffenbachia can cause death or blindness. However, she recommended that individuals exposed to the plant should seek medical attention. Information that the toxic level of Dieffenbachia is in the range of mild to moderate can also be found on websites like Trees.com and Dengarden.com

In a 2021 study published in Prestige Journal of Education, on the need to counsel households in Calabar about the dangers of Dieffenbachia, Effiom, Ubi and Ekwok argue that the sap of Dieffenbachia can cause permanent damage if they come in contact with the eyes. Although it is important to note that Effiom’s field is not stated, Ubi is in the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology while Ekwok is a Guidance Counsellor.

Conclusion

Dieffenbachia (or Dumb Cane) should be kept in living areas with caution, especially if there are children and/or pets present. While the plant can be toxic or harmful, the assertion that it can cause death or permanent blindness has not been proven. 

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