How deadly are scorpions?

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Sept. 21 2004 5:49 PM

How Deadly Are Scorpions?

Not very.

Fear: not a factor for Hassan
Fear: not a factor for Hassan

A Malaysian woman has broken the world record for time spent living in a scorpion-filled box. Nur Malena Hassan, 27, has so far endured 32 days in a glass case with 6,069 scorpions; she is hoping to last four more days, in order to put the record out of reach for competitors. Hassan has been stung seven times during her ordeal, emitting brief yelps of pain but showing no more troubling ill effects. Aren't scorpion stings supposed to be deadly?

Scorpions actually get an undeservedly bad rap, at least in terms of their killing power. Only about 25 of the 1,500 known species of scorpions can deliver stings that are fatal to humans. And most of these potentially lethal scorpions can't kill healthy adults, although their neurotoxins can cause such troubling symptoms as convulsions and shortness of breath. Infants and the elderly are most at risk of dying once stung by the deadliest species, though a few scorpions—such as the Death Stalker (Leiurus quinquestriatus) of North and Southwest Africa—are potent enough to fell even physically fit stingees, depending on the victim's innate tolerance for the venom.

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Of the 80 species in the United States, only one, the Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides excilicauda), is considered lethal. (The name is a slight misnomer; the species is also found in the deserts of California and Utah.) But there is an effective antivenin available for the treatment of this scorpion's stings, and there hasn't been a fatality in Arizona in over 40 years.

It's not immediately clear what species of scorpion was selected for Hassan's box, but it seems evident that she had the common sense to select one of the non-lethal options. This is confirmed by pictures of her arachnid roommates, which have fairly sizable pincers. The rule of thumb for scorpions is that the larger the pincers, the weaker the venom; species with big claws, after all, can snatch their food without completely paralyzing it first.

Hassan may be shacking up with nonlethal scorpions, but her seven stings have surely been no walk in the park. The stings of such scorpions are invariably painful, with the discomfort ranging from mild (on the order of a wasp sting) to quite severe, with swelling and discoloration that can last up to 48 hours. Since the venom is injected relatively deep beneath the skin, first aid is only partially effective at alleviating the symptoms. A victim's best immediate course of action is to wash the affected area with soap and water, then apply a cold compress. That should be followed up, of course, with a speedy trip to the emergency room to check whether an antivenin should be used, too.

Scorpions needn't always be an anathema to mankind. An Alabama-based biotech company called TransMolecular, Inc. is working on a tumor-killing drug made out of scorpion venom. The pharmaceutical is geared specifically toward treating a variety of brain tumors called gliomas, which affect about 16,500 Americans per year.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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