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By David R. Hooper B.Sc (Biochem) (Deva Gaura Hari Das)
In this paper we will document important scientific
facts regarding analysis of hair arsenic levels in Srila Prabhupada’s hair
relics. Nityananda das has claimed that Prabhupada’s hair levels were recorded
at 3ppm and that this represents solid evidence that “undoubtedly Srila
Prabhupada was maliciously poisoned.”
We will show that this assertion is UNTRUE by
referring to various authoritative scientific literatures and experts in the
fields of toxicology, medicine and neutron activation analysis.
Scientific facts about arsenic in hair
is the twentieth most abundant element in the earth’s crust.
figure for the testing of Prabhupada’s hair sample was NOT 3ppm arsenic but
studies have shown levels of 4.8ppm (Mexico City) and 3ppm (Glasgow) average
arsenic content of hair in normal (unexposed) populations.
proves that persons who are malnourished exhibit a 50% increase in the
concentration of trace metals in their hair, due to slowing of hair growth while
the rate of metal deposition remains constant.
of up to 1.4ppm arsenic (Didima Mataji) were found in Mayapur devotees, and up
to 3.36 ppm in persons who only occasionally visited the Ganges arsenic affected
the major source of elimination of arsenic is through the kidneys and urine. One
would expect elevated levels of these toxins in the blood and hair of a person
suffering serious kidney malfunction.
pathologists agree that even high levels of arsenic cannot on their own be
accepted as proof of poisoning without specific clinical symptoms of arsenic
analysis for arsenic is a very unreliable indicator of serum arsenic levels when
a specific individual is tested without a range of reference values from a group
of the same time and place for comparison.
scientists who are presently working in the field of hair analysis and neutron
activation agree that any amount up to 10 ppm arsenic can be considered
‘normal’ levels of arsenic.
Srila Prabhupada's hair samples do not show evidence of Arsenic poisoning. The actual level of Prabhupada's hair was 2.6ppm, and scientific studies have shown level of 4.8ppm and 3ppm average arsenic content of hair is normal. Arsenic is the one of the most abundant elements in the earth's crust.
1. Arsenic is the twentieth most abundant element in
the earth’s crust, and is found in many pesticides, smelting processes,
paints, underground water supplies and traditional oriental (including Indian)
It is common knowledge that arsenic is a deadly
poison, and many people imagine arsenic to be a rare chemical manufactured in
some exotic chemical laboratory. Therefore many devotees feel shocked when told
that Srila Prabhupada’s hair relics contain trace amounts of arsenic. However,
the actual fact is that arsenic is the 20th most common element on this planet
and pervades almost everything in our environment, including our own bodies.
2. The real figure for the testing of Prabhupada’s
hair sample was not 3ppm arsenic but 2.6ppm.
In his book, Nityananda Das reports two different
tests done on Srila Prabhupada’s hair relics. One is reported as being 1.1 ppm
and the other “almost 3.0 ppm.” He then goes on to use “3 ppm” as the
accepted figure. However, we have recently been provided with the original
document from Dr. Steve Morris of the University of Missouri who performed the
tests, which states that the actual figure was 2.6 ppm arsenic.
Thus Nityananda Das, for reasons best known to
himself, reports a figure of 1.1 ppm as it is, but decides that 2.6 ppm needs to
be rounded up to 3 ppm. Readers who are familiar with our previous papers on
this topic will recognize Nityananda Das’s inimitable reporting methods, and
will not be astonished to find such anomalies in his work.
Later in this paper we will give evidence to show
that this figure of 2.6 ppm is in no way proof of arsenic poisoning.
3. Scientific studies have shown results of 4.8ppm
(Mexico City) and 3ppm (Glasgow) average arsenic content of hair in normal
(unexposed) populations. MIT lists 0.13 - 3.71 ppm as the range of average
values for normal (healthy) persons.
In 1997, Dr. Armienta of the Geophysics Institute of
the University of Mexico conducted a series of tests on water and hair samples
from residents of Zimapan in central Mexico. For some years residents had
complained of various ailments, which were caused from arsenic exposure via
local well water. The tests showed hair concentrations of arsenic in the
affected townspeople to be 9.22 ppm.
Even more interesting was their results for a
reference group of unaffected ‘normal’ people. This group was taken from
residents of Mexico City and showed the average concentration was 4.8 ppm
arsenic in hair. Remember that these are perfectly healthy individuals with no
particular exposure to arsenic. The authors explained that the high value could
be explained by the air pollution prevalent in Mexico City, as arsenic binds
tightly to the keratin molecules in hair, whether via sweat or from external
Another study performed in the 1970’s showed an
average of 3 ppm hair arsenic in the population of Glasgow, again presumably due
to high pollution levels.
Remember that these figures are an average, which
means that some of the “healthy” subjects tested contained levels that were
much higher still than 3 or 4.8 ppm. Therefore the fact that Srila
Prabhupada’s hair contained 2.6 ppm cannot be taken as proof of poisoning.
Rather this value falls within the range of average values reported in various
studies around the world.
4. Research shows that persons who are malnourished
exhibit 50% higher than normal content of metals in their hair, due to the hair
growth slowing markedly while the rate of metal deposition into the hair remains
In 1983, the New York Hospital Medical Department
conducted experiments into the pitfalls of hair analysis for trace element
concentration. They found a peculiar phenomenon, whereby the concentration of
trace metals in hair actually increased when a patient was malnourished. This
was due to the fact that the rate of hair growth slowed markedly under
conditions of malnourishment, while the rate of deposition of trace elements
from the blood and external environment remained constant. This produces an
artificially elevated level of trace metal in the hair compared to the actual
level in the bloodstream.
For example, if 0.05 mg of metal were deposited in
the hair per day, which grew at a rate of 2 mg per day, the concentration would
be 0.05 / 2 = 0.025 metal per hair mass. However, if the hair growth slowed to
1.2 mg per day, the apparent hair concentration would rise to 0.05 / 1.2 = 0.040
metal per hair weight.
Thus a 40% decrease in hair growth corresponds to a
50% increase in trace metal concentrations.
It is well known that Srila Prabhupada ate very
little for most of 1977. Bhakti Caru Swami, who cooked for him for most of this
time confirms this:
When His Divine Grace was in Bombay, after the
Mayapur festival in 1977, I started to cook for him. Although he was eating
something, but it was very little and he even commented that if he could just
eat two chapatis that would indicate his good health. However, he could not even
eat that much.
When Srila Prabhupada arrived in Vrndavan (May 1977)
after giving his arrival darshan to all the devotees there, Srila Prabhupada
called me to his room and told me not to cook for him and persuade him to eat.
He told me, “What’s the use of eating when there is no appetite.” From
then onwards his food intake was reduced to practically nothing.
Srila Prabhupada’s hair growth certainly slowed during 1977, and this is also confirmed by his personal servants. Therefore one would expect that the content of metals in his hair would be higher due to constant exposure to trace levels of heavy metals and marked decrease in hair growth.
5. Results of up to 1.4ppm arsenic (Didima Mataji)
were found in Mayapur devotees, and up to 3.36 ppm in persons who only
occasionally visited the Ganges arsenic affected area.
Nityananda Das claims that “normally one would
expect to find from less than 0.05 ppm arsenic up to perhaps 0.1 to 0.2 ppm,
depending on exposure… and that farmers regularly exposed to pesticides MIGHT
temporarily attain a level of 1.0ppm, which is probably why so many have
However, we don’t have to look very far to discount
this speculative reasoning. Recent testing done on some of the resident devotees
of Mayapur have found that they do in fact contain hair arsenic levels above 1
ppm, and are not suffering any ill effects from such levels.
Nityananda Das goes on to make a dramatic
embellishment of the 3 ppm figure, saying it is “15 to 60 times over average.
The presence of such high amounts of the world’s deadliest poison in Srila
Prabhupada’s hair confirms: Srila Prabhupada was poisoned with arsenic.”
However, using these figures, the levels of arsenic
in the hair of Didima Mataji are also 30 times the “average” level. If
Nityananda is so sure about these figures, why isn’t he also suggesting we
launch a full investigation into who is poisoning Didima?
Ntyananda Das tries to pass off the West Bengal
arsenic crisis by saying, “There was some news a few years back about health
problems in Bengal due to arsenic contamination in deep well water. However,
Srila Prabhupada left Mayapur, Bengal in March 1977 after a stay of six
In contrast, a 1995 study done by Jadavpur University
described the situation as a crisis, titling their research paper “The Biggest
Arsenic Calamity in the World” saying that at least 30 million people in six
districts of West Bengal are living with levels of arsenic higher than the level
recommended by the WHO. A list of the affected areas extended all along the
Ganges delta, with Navadwip being specifically mentioned as one of the seriously
affected areas. This study reported hair arsenic concentrations from one
affected family in Murshidabad as ranging from 4.78 up to 9.78 ppm.
Of special relevance to this discussion, two
additional members of the family who only came home occasionally and just
happened to be there on the day of the testing, had hair arsenic levels of 2.35
and 3.36 ppm respectively. Neither displayed any adverse health effects.
It is not clear when was the last time the clippers
that contained the hair sample were used. The very last time Prabhupada was
shaved was on September 22, 1977. However, Tamal Krishna Maharaja reports that
he shaved up Prabhupada with a razor blade (as reported in TKG’s Diary).
Therefore the hair clippers were almost certainly not used after Prabhupada came
back from England on September 12. This puts the date of last use back to at
least mid-August. Prabhupada’s servants confirm that his hair growth had
slowed very dramatically throughout 1977. This, together with the possibility
that other clippers or razors were used to shave Prabhupada’s hair, makes it
possible, if not probable, that the hair remnants from the clippers in
Vrindavana are from much earlier in the year.
In fact, the only confirmed use of the Wahl clippers
in 1977 comes from Hari Sauri Das who remembers shaving Prabhupada in March with
these very clippers. If the clippers were last used in March, April or May, the
hair remnants would contain growth from Prabhupada’s six week stay in Mayapur
up to 22 March. This factor, together with Prabhupada’s travel through
polluted Indian cities and the concentrating effect of slow hair growth, as will
be explained below, means that a figure of 2.6 ppm arsenic is by no means an
6. By far the major source of elimination of arsenic
is through the kidneys and urine. If someone with serious kidney malfunction was
exposed to even small amounts of arsenic via water or medicines, one would
expect elevated levels of these toxins in the sweat and sebaceous secretions
(and therefore the hair) due to lack of sufficient kidney function to eliminate
It is well known that arsenic and other heavy metals
have a debilitating effect on the ability of the kidneys to eliminate toxins.
However, just as high blood arsenic levels damage the kidneys, an already
malfunctioning kidney will also raise the blood concentration of such toxins due
to not properly eliminating them via the urine.
Studies show that at least half the total amount of
arsenic from water or environmental sources is eliminated by the kidneys and
passed out through the urine. Someone suffering from serious kidney damage would
have a dramatically reduced ability to eliminate arsenic from the bloodstream.
Therefore whatever trace amounts one would normally expect to be deposited in
the hair and other tissues would be elevated under these conditions.
In our previous paper ‘No Medical Evidence for
Poisoning of Srila Prabhupada’, a detailed description of Prabhupada’s major
kidney malfunctioning is given.
With this in mind, we can understand that the figure
of 2.6 ppm arsenic concentration in Prabhupada’s hair is in no way conclusive
of poisoning. Considering the state of his kidneys, if Prabhupada were given any
amount of arsenic one would expect a far higher level of arsenic in his hair
7. Arsenic gets into hair via sweat and other
secretions and binds strongly onto the keratin molecules in hair. Because of
this it is impossible to distinguish between arsenic sweated from the skin and
then bound to the hair and arsenic that later binds to hair through
contamination from an external source. Therefore forensic pathologists agree
that even very high levels of arsenic cannot on their own be accepted as proof
of poisoning without specific clinical symptoms of arsenic poisoning.
Scientific studies have shown that arsenic gets into
hair via sweat and sebaceous secretions and then firmly adsorbs itself to the
keratin proteins in the hair matrix. This was discovered through a number of
studies, including the work of Young and Rice who found arsenic in the hair of
guinea pigs injected with sodium arsenite beyond the point it could have reached
by hair growth alone. Similar studies have confirmed these findings.
Therefore, it is impossible to discern between
arsenic that is bound to hair via ingestion, from that which binds itself to
hair from an external source, either while the person was alive or while the
hair relic was in storage.
For this reason, forensic pathologists are very wary
of accepting a diagnosis of arsenic poisoning unless there are clear indications
via clinical symptoms (i.e. hyperkeratosis, sensory polyneuropathy, raindrop
pigmentation, Mees lines etc). We have covered the subject of Prabhupada’s
distinct lack of clinical arsenicosis symptoms in our papers ‘No Medical
Evidence’ and ‘Nityananda’s Diagnosis 1’.
This point is explained nicely by Dr. Corso of Yale
University Medical School and Dr. Hindmarsh of the Department of Pathology and
Biochemistry at Ottawa University, in their 1996 paper which debunked the
spurious theory that Napoleon Bonaparte was poisoned by arsenic.
“As every forensic scientist know, the diagnosis of
chronic arsenic poisoning cannot be made upon elevated arsenic concentrations in
hair alone because external contamination of the hair by arsenic can produce a
sustained increase in hair arsenic that cannot be differentiated from the
increases that occur from arsenic ingestion. Thus, before a diagnosis of chronic
arsenic poisoning can be made, the characteristic clinical features must be
present as well as an appropriately elevated arsenic concentration in hair. In
addition, external contamination of the hair by arsenic must be excluded.”
Doctors Corso and Hindmarsh further elaborate,
listing the most common and constant clinical features of arsenic poisoning, and
their noted absence in the symptoms displayed by Napoleon.
The most prominent dermatological feature of chronic
arsenic poisoning is also constant: raindrop pigmentation of the skin,
particularly around the axillae, groins, temple. Eyes, neck, and nipples,
although it may also extend over the shoulders and chest anteriorly and
posteriorly. Hyperkeratosis of the palms of the hands and soles of the feet is
also often present, frequently associated with arsenical “corns” These
features were clearly not present at death, as Henry reports that the skin at
autopsy was “white and delicate, as were the hands and arms.”
The spurious theory of Napoleon’s poisoning and
that of Srila Prabhupada share many common aspects. It should be noted however,
that the figures obtained for Napoleons hair analysis included levels of 16.9,
15.3, and 11.8 ppm arsenic. Still the consensus among toxicologists is that the
poisoning theory is not acceptable due to lack of characteristic symptoms, and
an inability to rule out environmental contamination.
Certainly a similar theory would be even more
unacceptable when the highest hair level recorded was only 2.6 ppm.
8. Hair analysis for arsenic is a very unreliable
indicator of serum arsenic levels when a specific individual is tested without a
range of reference values from a group of the same time and place for
comparison. This unreliability is even more marked when a small amount of hair
sample is tested.
Because arsenic can be found in quite high
concentrations in some parts of the world and practically doesn’t exist in
others, the reference range of values for ‘normal’ unexposed populations is
very wide. In some places the average arsenic content of hair is seen to be
approx. 0.13 ppm, while in other places, especially industrialized cities with
pollution problems, or areas with arsenic in underground water supplies, the
average levels can be as high as 3 ppm or even 5 ppm.
Thus while one can say what one would normally
‘expect’ for arsenic content in a person’s hair, there is no hard and fast
rule for arsenic levels. Rogers et al. from the Toxicology Department at
Cambridge, list the “ range of mean values reported in 15 different studies
involving normal (healthy) sample donors” to be 0.13 - 3.71 ppm arsenic. Thus
many studies over the years have shown that normal, healthy population groups
can and do have arsenic levels in their hair in excess of 3 ppm.
The standard reference work ‘Comprehensive Review
in Toxicology for Emergency Clinicians’, explains that arsenic concentration
of hair varies with nutritional, environmental and physiological factors.
Nityananda Das listed this book as one of his reference materials, and in it he
would have read, (if he did read it) that the upper limit of NORMAL arsenic
concentration with 99% confidence in people NOT exposed to arsenic is 5 ppm.
Nityananda Das gives a characteristically
emotion-charged lead up to the “3ppm” figure by saying that only “farmers
who are regularly exposed over a long term basis to agricultural herbicides and
pesticides containing arsenic compounds MIGHT temporarily attain a level of 1.0
parts per million.” As we can see from the above studies this is patently
In his report on the 2.6 ppm figure, Dr. Morris gives
no real interpretation of the results, except to say that this figure is
approximately 20 times the figure one would expect to find as a normal average
among unexposed individuals living in the United states. However there are
obvious difficulties in a blanket application of this figure for all times and
places. We need only to look at the proven arsenic levels of Didima Mataji of
1.4 ppm. Using the above interpretation, her hair contains more than ten times
the average one would expect for someone living in the United States.
Because of the large range of “normal” values for
hair arsenic levels, some authorities actually recommend that these values
shouldn’t be relied upon at all when applied to an individual, but should only
be used where a group of individuals from the same area can be measured and
compared to the average of that particular group.
In the standard handbook of clinical toxicology
‘Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose’, Doctors Hall and
Robertson make this point very strongly with regard to arsenic hair analysis.
Under no circumstances should any credence be paid to
hair analysis of an individual patient, unless perhaps it is conducted as part
of an epidemiologic investigation of a group of patients. Such results ought to
be applied only to the group.
We can see the work of Armienta et al. cited above
illustrates this point nicely. Their reference group had an average
concentration of 4.8 ppm arsenic, while the affected group showed 9.22 ppm. By
analyzing the data in terms of the particular locales, they were able to obtain
meaningful results. However, had they blindly followed the rule of 0.13 ppm as
the standard level, the reference (unaffected) group would have showed more than
35 times the average for unexposed persons. This is the kind of reasoning
Nityananda Das has (mis)used to try and make his case.
Another problem with the analysis performed on the
hair relic from Prabhupada’s clippers is that it is an extremely small
quantity of sample. Generally, forensic toxicologists prefer to have a
reasonably large group of hair clippings, taken from various parts of the head.
Due to large variations in concentrations of metals among different hair
strands, it is important to obtain a reasonably large sample amount for testing,
otherwise the results may be misleading. The amount of hair assayed by Dr.
Morris was 0.0013 grams, a very small amount that was caught between the blades
of the clippers. It is an extremely tenuous proposition to base a murder case on
such a small amount of hair, especially as the amount of arsenic - 2.6 ppm - is
in itself nothing like proof of arsenical intoxication.
Doctors Corso and Hindmarsh make the same point when
exposing the fallaciousness of the Napoleon poisoning theory.
Even when external contamination can be excluded by
other evidence, the relationship between the degree of poisoning and hair
arsenic levels is only approximate. Traditional interpretations are based on
mean concentrations found in a minimum of 1 gram of hair, usually collected form
several sites on the head. Variations from hair to hair, and even along the same
strand of hair, are large, making the interpretation of data derived from
individual hairs or from specific locations on a single hair less predictive
than mean levels from larger samples.
Therefore the results obtained from a meager 0.0015
grams of sample should be viewed with extreme caution, especially if they do not
indicate an obviously elevated level of arsenic, i.e. more than 10 ppm.
9. Expert scientists who are presently working in the
field of hair analysis and neutron activation agree that levels under 10ppm
cannot be considered indicative of arsenic poisoning.
During investigations into the poison issue, we
contacted various laboratories across the United States regarding possible
testing of a hair sample from Srila Prabhupada. These professionals provided a
number of interesting facts that are very relevant to this discussion.
Keep in mind that the information relayed below was
given totally unsolicited from persons who have no connection with ISKCON, nor
even had any idea about why we were enquiring about testing for arsenic.
Larry Kovar from General Activation Analysis, one of
the only labs in the world that does commercial neutron activation outside of a
university, had this to say about arsenic levels in hair.
For your information, my hair has about 3 ppm Arsenic
- the last time I tested it (I’m still alive, I hope) If you send samples to a
lab, send some of your own as a control.
This squarely puts the 2.6 ppm reported for Srila
Prabhupada, and the poison theory in general as expounded by Nityananda, firmly
where it belongs; i.e. the ‘circular file’. When I mentioned to Larry in a
later correspondence about the 3 ppm reported by Nityananda Das, he had the
following to say.
Not sure where the As came from - 3 ppm could be
“normal” and not from an external source.
When I asked about retesting the hair that was tested
by Dr Morris, Larry had this to say.
A low (less than 10 ppm) value shows the hair is
“normal.” A high value (greater than 10 ppm) indicates Arsenic exposure.
Since the hair has been tested at 3 ppm As, I feel a re-test is not necessary…
I have discussed this with Dr Vince Guinn, a well-known researcher in this
field, and he agrees.
After Larry found that his facility didn’t have the
required reactor time to perform the tests, he contacted Dr. Richard Cashwell at
the University of Wisconsin about performing the analysis. Dr Cashwell wrote
back with the following information regarding his own experience with neutron
activation analysis for hair arsenic.
We ran a series of As in hair determinations years
ago; the highest “normal” sample we saw was 12 ppm- from a physics graduate
student from Scotland. I’d agree with your normal range.
What this means is that trained professional
scientists who are working in this very specialized field of neutron activation
analysis for hair arsenic content, all confer that any value up to 10 ppm
arsenic can be considered to be “normal” levels. Therefore we are left to
either believe these experts, and all of the other scientists and doctors quoted
above, or Nityananda Das who has no experience or background in this field
Based on the documented evidence, there are
absolutely NO GROUNDS to claim that the 2.6 ppm arsenic level for Srila
Prabhupada’s hair is a clear indicator of poisoning. Hair can absorb arsenic
from any number of possible external sources, thus raising the apparent
concentration of arsenic. Therefore no forensic pathologist will return a
finding of poisoning based on hair analysis alone, without specific clinical
symptoms of arsenicosis.
Even if external contamination could be ruled out
(which it clearly cannot in this case), the figure of 2.6 ppm is not high enough
to warrant suspicion. Studies have shown average hair concentrations of up to
4.8 ppm in city populations unexposed to arsenic, and a report of 15 different
studies by the Toxicology Dept. at MIT Cambridge gives a range of average values
for normal (healthy) individuals as being 0.13 - 3.71 ppm arsenic.
So far we have demonstrated that there is no medical
evidence in terms of specific symptoms for arsenic poisoning of Prabhupada and
that he displayed all the classic clinical signs of diabetic nephropathy (kidney
failure). This diagnosis was confirmed by the surgeon who operated on Prabhupada
in his final days and by numerous Ayurvedic physicians. The present paper
explains why the figure of 2.6 ppm arsenic in Prabhupada’s hair is not
indicative of poisoning. This now leaves the entire poison theory edifice
resting on the slender thread of a few whispers, which have been interpreted
variously, and the apparently “clear” messages heard when conversations of
1977 are played backwards on a tape recorder.
Considering the lack of any evidence of substance, it
is hoped that it is only a matter of time until the entire issue is put to rest
and we can all get back to doing what Prabhupada wanted us to do, i.e. giving
Krishna consciousness to so many suffering in complete forgetfulness of their
eternal relationship with Krishna.
In conclusion, there is absolutely no information,
either factual or scientific which can support the theory of the chronic arsenic
poisoning of Srila Prabhupada.
© CHAKRA 8th-Nov-1999
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