Potions and Poisons

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Potions and Poisons
Chemistry & Lab Event
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Division B Champion Solon Middle School
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Potions and Poisons is a Division B event for the 2018 season. It was previously a trial event in Pennsylvania and Washington. In Potions and Poisons, participants demonstrate their knowledge on specified substances' chemical properties and effects with a focus on common toxins and poisons. Category C goggles are required in this event.

Topics covered

Some event topics from the trial event rules (2016) include:

  • Chemical bonding
  • Mixtures, solutions and compounds and separation of the components within them
  • Property changes
  • Chemical equations
  • Balancing chemical equations
  • Poisonous plants and animals
  • Common household toxins
  • Environmental toxins and effects of their spread
  • Effects of dilution
  • Lab tasks

Chemical bonding

A chemical bond is an attraction between two atoms that causes them to combine, which can create molecules. The two types of bonding that the current version of the Potions and Poisons rules says to know are ionic and covalent bonding.


An electronegativity table

Electronegativity is a property of elements that is defined as the tendency of an atom to attract electrons. The difference between two atoms' electronegativities decides the type of bond they make. A chart known as an electronegativity chart can be used to find the electronegativities of different elements

Ionic Bonding

Ionic bonding is a type of bonding in which one atom takes an electron from another atom. This type of bonding occurs when the difference in electronegativity is high. A common example of this is the compound NaCl, or table salt. The metal Na (sodium) bonds with the halogen gas Cl (chlorine).

To name a simple ionic compound, use the name of the regular metal, followed by the name of the nonmetal, with the latter using the ending "-ide". For example, NaCl would be written as sodium chloride.

Covalent Bonding

Covalent bonding is a type of bonding in which atoms 'share' electrons. This occurs when there is a low difference in electronegativity. Two very common examples are the molecules H2 and O2. Because the bonds are formed between two atoms of the same element, the difference in their electronegativities must be zero.

Covalent bonds can be nonpolar or polar. In polar covalent bonds, the atoms have different electronegativities, and therefore share electrons unequally. The more electronegative atom has a partial negative charge, while the less electronegative atom has a partial positive charge. These are denoted with the δ symbol (Greek lowercase delta), using δ- for partial negative charge and δ+ for partial positive charge.

Chemical Equations

Chemical reactions are written out as chemical equations. A chemical equation has two parts: reactants and products. The atoms in the reactants are rearranged to form the products.

Chemical equations are written left-to-right with the products following the reactants, and an arrow sign (which is read as "yields") pointing from the reactants to the products. Each individual reactant/molecule is represented with a plus sign (+). The following equation is an example of a chemical equation, with the reactants on the left and the product on the right.

[math]2H_2 + O_2 \rightarrow 2H_2O[/math]

If there are multiple instances of a molecule, the number of molecules is written as a coefficient. For example, the product in the above equation is water, or H₂O. There are two water molecules present, which is written as 2H₂O.

Balancing Chemical Equations

In a chemical reaction, the quantity of each element cannot change (If there are n atoms of element A in the reactants, there must be n atoms in the product). A chemical equation must have equal quantities of each element on either side of the arrow. As mentioned above, adding coefficients to molecules can show that there are those many molecules present. However, if an equation is given without coefficients, chances are that there is an inequality on either side. Consider the example given above; however this time it is without coefficients:

[math]H_2 + O_2 \rightarrow H_2O[/math]

If you count the number of each element on either side of the equation, you will get the following:

  • Hydrogen on left: 2
  • Oxygen on left: 2
  • Hydrogen on right: 2
  • Oxygen on right: 1

This cannot be a balanced equation, because the number of atoms is unequal. To fix this issue, it is necessary to balance the chemical equation.

To balance a chemical equation, add coefficients to make the number of atoms of each element equal. For example, take again the previous equation:

[math]H_2 + O_2 \rightarrow H_2O[/math]

Notice that there is only one type of molecule as the product, meaning that it is the only molecule that a coefficient can be added to. A basic way to find the proper coefficient is to find a ratio between the two elements on one side and apply that to the other side. In this example, there are two times as many hydrogens as oxygens. In addition, all coefficients must be whole numbers. Therefore, the lowest coefficients would be a two in front of the hydrogen gas (on the left) and a two in front of the water. This gives us a balanced equation of:

[math]2H_2 + O_2 \rightarrow 2H_2O[/math]

Poisonous Plants and Animals

The poisonous plants and animals listed in the 2019 rules are:

  • Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)
  • Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)
  • Autumn Skullcap (Galerina marginata)
  • Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)
  • Oak (Quercus sp)
  • Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
  • Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus Fulvius)
  • Cotton Mouth Snake (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
  • Black Widow Spider (Latrodectus mactans)
  • Brown Recluse Spider (Locosceles recluse)

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

Poison ivy grows most regions of the US, typically in woods, fields, and along roadsides, especially where vegetation is disturbed. It can be identified by its three thin, pointy, and shiny leaves. The leaf color depends on the season. In the spring, the leaves are reddish; in the summer, green; in the fall, orange to bronze.

Upon contact with the oil from poison ivy, an allergic reaction happens. Touching the plant itself is not the only way to contact the oil; touching gardening equipment or pets that have contacted the ivy can also spread the oil. Symptoms of a reaction include itching, redness, swelling, and blisters. It is important to note that the blisters are NOT contagious.

Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)

Poison oak, found throughout western North America in states like California and Washington, is also known as the Pacific poison oak or western poison oak. It can be found in a variety of habitats, ranging from grasslands to conifer forests. It can survive in shady to full sun conditions and prefers elevations below 5000 ft (1500 m). Its form can vary from a dense bush to a vine. During the winter, the stems are leafless; in February, the leaves begin to appear, changing colors from bronze to green to pink. The leaves most commonly have 3 lobes, are 1-4 inches long, and have lobed edges, resembling a very glossy oak leaf. Flowers are white, forming from March to June, and the peak flowering season is in May. Many deer and squirrels consume poison oak with no reactions to the toxin.

The leaves and twigs contain urushiol, which causes itching and dermatitis. Burning this plant is very dangerous, as smoke can lead to internal injuries, along with external damage.

Death-Cap Mushroom (Amanita phalloides)

The death cap mushroom has a large fruiting body, typically 2-6 inches across, that is usually pale green or yellow. It has a distinctive swollen and ragged base (volva) which can be hidden by leaf debris. The scent is often described as overpoweringly sweet. It is widespread across Europe, often found with oaks, chestnuts, and pines. In the US, it can be found on both the East and West Coast.

The death cap mushroom, one of the most dangerous mushrooms, is responsible for a large number of mushroom-related deaths each year. This is due to several factors; the death cap mushroom resembles edible fungi like the straw mushroom, and the toxins it contains (called amatoxins) cannot be reduced through cooking. Amatoxins cause renal and hepatic failure (kidney and liver), with symptoms including gastrointestinal distress, jaundice, and cardiac arrest. Treatment includes activated carbon to clear the GI tract and may require a liver transplant if liver failure occurs.

Jimson Weed (Datura sp.)

Jimson weed, believed to be native to Mexico, is a bush-forming herb with a bad smell. It has a long, thick root, and a branched yellow-green stem. The leaves are long and smooth, with the top side darker than the bottom. The flowers, occurring throughout the summer, are white to purple with a trumpet shape. The flowers generally open at night and have a pleasant smell. It is found throughout most moderate and warm climates, especially near wastelands and roadsides. Its name comes from Jamestown, Virginia, where it was consumed by soldiers during Bacon's rebellion.

All parts of this plant contain anticholinergics (atropine, hyoscyamine, scopolamine), causing symptoms such as delirium and tachycardia. Traditionally, it was used for asthma and analgesia, as well as for hallucinogenic effects.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Mayapple is an herbaceous perennial that can be found throughout the eastern US and southeastern Canada. It grows in colonies that originate from a single root. The stems are generally 30-40 cm tall, with umbrella-like leaves with shallow lobes. The flowers can be white, yellow, or red, appearing in early May. The unripe green fruit is toxic, but the ripe yellow fruit with seeds removed can be safely ingested. However, even large amounts of the ripe fruit can still cause damage. The roots and leaves are poisonous as well. The toxin it contains is known as podophyllotoxin, which can be used topically to treat warts. In traditional medicine, Native Americans used mayapple as an antiemetic and anthelmintic.

Ongaonga (Urtica ferox)

Ongaonga, native to New Zealand, is a large woody shrub that can grow up to 3 meters tall. Stinging hairs up to 6 mm long cover the stems, leaves, and stalks. The leaves are oppositely arranged and have a triangular shape with serrated margins. It is often found in temperate regions on the edges of forests and flowers from November to March. It provides food and protection for the red admiral butterfly (Vanessa gonerilla) and is eaten by animals such as goats and deer.

Ongaonga contains the toxin known as triffydin/tryfydin, which contains histamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine. Reactions range from inflammation to blurred vision and paralysis. One human death from ongaonga contact has been recorded.

Cane Toad (Rhinella marina)

Cane toads are native to South and Central America. They are night foragers and mainly prey on insects and snails. They have been introduced to various places such as Australia to control insect populations, but for the most part, become an invasive species. Adult cane toads have toxins on glands on their upper surface, especially near the shoulders, and exude bufotoxin, which acts on the heart and central nervous system (CNS), when provoked.

Pacific Newt (Taricha sp.)

There are four species of Pacific newt: T. granulosa (rough-skinned newt), T. rivularis (red-skinned newt), T. sierrae (Sierra newt), and T. torosa (California newt). All four are found on the Pacific coast, from southern Alaska to southern California. These newts generally have a brown upper body with a brightly colored belly, with granulated or grainy skin. Adults are nocturnal and semi to fully aquatic, while efts (juveniles) are mainly terrestrial. Adults' diets generally consist of invertebrates. All species possess tetrodotoxin, with the rough-skinned newt being the most toxic. However, toxicity can vary, even between the same species living in different regions. Toxins should not come in contact with broken skin or mucous membranes, and hands should be washed after handling to prevent ingestion.

Brown Recluse Spider (Loxosceles recluse)

The brown recluse is one of three North American spiders with venom that requires medical attention. They are around 6-20 mm long and generally light to dark brown colored. These spiders generally have a marking shaped like a violin on their back, with the neck of the violin pointing towards the spider's rear. Unlike other spiders, which have 8 eyes, brown recluses have 6 eyes that are arranged in pairs. They have a coating of fine hairs that create a soft, furry appearance. Their life span lasts 1 to 5 years, and juveniles take about 1 year to reach maturity. Females lay eggs from May - July in sacs of 50, which hatch in one month. Brown recluses build irregular webs that are located in dry, undisturbed places like garages and cellars. Their diet consists of cockroaches, crickets, and other insects. In North America, brown recluses can be found south of a line roughly connecting southeastern Nebraska to Ohio.

Brown recluse bites are often not initially felt, but require medical attention, as their venom is hemotoxic. Symptoms of a bite include nausea, fever, muscle and joint pain, and rashes. The venom can also have necrotic effects, with soft tissue destruction resulting in lasting scars. A typical treatment includes applying an icepack; medications have been used but the bite can usually heal without much intervention.

Fattail Scorpion (Androctonus australis)

The fattail scorpion is native to North Africa, Somalia, the Middle East, Pakistan, and India. Its exoskeleton is covered in granules, which is hypothesized to allow it to withstand extremely strong sandstorms without digging a burrow. It grows up to 10 cm long with a thick tail and stripes. Although it is one of the most common scorpions in the pet trade, its venom is very potent and causes a number of deaths each year.

Past Plants and Animals

Plants and animals that have been included in past years are listed below.

2016-2017 (Trial Rules)
A common misconception is to believe that the Portuguese man o' war (a hydrozoan) is a jellyfish.

Wolfsbane (Aconitum sp.)

Wolfsbane is also known as Aconite or Monkshood. It is an herbaceous, perennial plant that grows well in mountain meadows. The flowers are large and usually blue, purple, white, yellow, or pink. Although poisonous, some species are used for ornamental purposes. Signs of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tingling, and numbness. If a fatal dose is taken, death occurs within 2-6 hours. Poisoning can also occur just by touching the leaves without gloves, because the toxin aconitine is absorbed easily through the skin.

Jack in the Pulpit (Arum maculatum)

Jack in the Pulpit, also known as Indian turnip, is found in deciduous woods and floodplains. The flower is green and maroon striped, and the seed is bright red. The leaves and fruit contain calcium oxalate (CaC2O4) which is irritating to the skin, so gloves should be worn when handling this plant. Jack in the Pulpit is also irritating when ingested raw, and contact with the roots can cause skin blisters. However, the roots can be safely eaten when cooked.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)

Lily of the Valley is an herbaceous perennial plant that spreads through underground rhizomes. It flowers in late Spring, and the flowers consist of 6 white tepals (outer parts of the flower). The flowers have a sweet scent. The fruit is a small reddish berry. All parts of the plant, including flowers and berries, are poisonous. Any amount ingested can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, and blurred vision. Many cardiac glycosides, medications that increase heart output while decreasing contraction rate, are derived from this plant.

Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)

Poison Sumac is a small shrub/tree that grows in wet clay soils such as swamps and peat bogs. It has reddish tinted leaves and greenish flowers. All parts of it contain the resin urushiol, which causes skin and mucous membrane irritation. Symptoms on the skin can include swelling, inflammation, and oozing. Poison Sumac can be especially dangerous when burned, because it can lead to pulmonary edema. The urushiol contained in this plant is similar to that contained in Poison Ivy, but the Poison Sumac urushiol tends to be more toxic.

Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates sp.)

Poison Dart Frogs are small and poisonous frogs. They inhabit northern South America, as well as some of Central America. Poison dart frog poison is neurotoxic and cardiotoxic, and can harm organisms that come in contact with the skin of the organism. This type of poisoning can cause convulsions and heart arrhythmia, which eventually leads to heart failure.

Portuguese Man o' War (Physalia physalis)

Portuguese Man o' War are usually thought of as a type of jellyfish, but they are siphonophores. Whereas jellyfish are single organisms, the man o' war is made up of many unique creatures. Not to be confused with Physalia utriculus, Physalia physalis is found in the Atlantic. The part of the creature that remains afloat while the rest of it is submerged is the pneumatophore. Portuguese man o' war can't move on their own and move with the wind, current, or tide, making them planktonic. The barbed nematocysts of this creature contain neurotoxic venom which usually cause red welts in individuals that come in contact with them. In extreme cases, man o' war stings can cause death. These nematocysts can be used by other organisms for beneficial purposes, however. For example, blanket octopuses many be seen carrying broken man o' war tentacles because they are immune to the venom.

Common Household Toxins

The trial rules of Potions and Poisons mention the following toxic household chemicals:

  • Ammonia
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Bleach
  • Epsom salts
  • Vinegar
  • Nutritional supplements containing calcium and iron


The compound ammonia itself is a colorless gas with the formula NH3. However, it is most commonly seen in households as a cleaner, where the gas is dissolved into water. It is most dangerous when mixed with bleach, which causes the release of toxic fumes, which can cause serious respiratory damage, in addition to potential chemical burns, headaches, nausea, or vomiting.

Hydrogen peroxide

A typical "brown bottle" of hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is a colorless liquid. Its compound name is H2O2. It is commonly used as a disinfectant, either for surfaces or for wounds. Because the concentration of most hydrogen peroxide used in households (usually in brown bottles) is low, at about 3%, ingestion of small amounts of hydrogen peroxide (diluted) does not usually cause any significant damage, apart from potential stomach irritation. However, ingesting a large quantity can cause more serious stomach irritation and may even cause chemical burns.

Furthermore, ingestion of a higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide can cause much more serious symptoms, and death in some cases.

Rubbing Alcohol

Rubbing alcohol (Isopropyl alcohol) is an alcohol with the formula C3H8O. It is most often used as a disinfectant. When ingested, it is metabolized into acetone. This can cause dizziness, headaches, vomiting, or even coma.


Bleach is a solution of the chemical compound sodium hypochlorite (NaClO) in water. It is a strong base, with a pH of 12.6. It is most often used as a household cleaner. As mentioned above, mixing bleach with ammonia releases dangerous fumes. Exposure to bleach on its own can cause irritation in the eyes, mouth, skin, and lungs, and can cause burns.

Epsom Salts

Epsom salts (Magnesium sulfate) are salts with the equation MgSO4. They have many uses, including uses as bath salts, as laxatives, face cleansers, cleaners, and as fertilizer. However, ingesting high levels of these salts can cause magnesium overdose, which can lead to slowed heartbeat, lowered blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, and coma or death in serious cases.


Vinegar is an extremely common household chemical. It is an acidic liquid, a mixture of acetic acid (CH3COOH) and water. It is used in cooking, cleaning, and medicine. However, concentrations of acetic acid higher than 10% can cause skin damage/corrosion.

Nutritional Supplements Containing Calcium and Iron

An excess of calcium, known as hypercalcemia, may result from overuse of calcium supplements. Symptoms of hypercalcemia include nausea, thirst, lethargy, and muscle weakness; in severe cases, cardiac arrhythmias and palpitations may occur.

Iron supplements are often taken for anemia, but iron poisoning can occur and be potentially fatal, especially in children under 5 years old. The GI tract and stomach become irritated and internal cell reactions may be interrupted due to an excess of iron. Vomiting and nausea are some of the earliest symptoms; if untreated, the liver may develop severe scars and fail. It can be treated through bowel irrigation or chelation therapy.

Environmental Toxins


Iron as an environmental toxin is common in water; drinking this water may lead to effects such as those stated above for iron toxicity. Iron particles may also have an effect on algal blooms and impact the ocean's ability to trap greenhouse gases.


Arsenic, often consumed through polluted drinking water, may cause skin changes, infertility, and cancer in humans. It often reaches the environment through copper, lead, and zinc industries, and can be found in soil and bodies of water. Too much arsenic in the soil can lead to limited species abundance and diversity, as many plants do not have resistance to arsenic. In the environment, arsenic cannot be destroyed - only its form can be modified.


Copper can be released into the environment through mining, metal production, and various industrial settings. Long term exposure to high levels of copper can lead to gastrointestinal issues and possible damage to mucus membranes. Copper easily accumulates in soil and does not break down. Thus, high concentrations occur, which makes it hard for plants to grow, reducing plant diversity and potentially impacting agricultural practices. It may also interrupt decomposition of organic matter in soil and can be damaging to fish and plants in aquatic environments.


Dilution is simply the addition of a solvent without adding any solute. This is shown in the equation:

[math]C_1 \times V_1 = C_2 \times V_2[/math]


  • C1 = the initial concentration of the solute
  • V1 = the initial volume of the solution
  • C2 = the final concentration of the solute
  • V2 = the final volume of the solution

For example, if a solution has a 10% concentration of salt in one liter of water, adding another liter of water would halve the concentration of the salt, to 5%. This example can be shown mathematically using the above equation, where:

  • C1 = 10%
  • V1 = 1 L
  • C2 = 5%
  • V2 = 2 L

[math]10\% \times 1 L = 5\% \times 2L[/math]

[math]0.1 \times 1 L = 0.05 \times 2L[/math]

[math]0.1 L = 0.1 L[/math]

Lab Tasks

In addition to completing a written test, Potions and Poisons competitors must complete at least one lab task, according to the trial rules. These lab tasks may include the following:

  • Chromatography
  • Mixture of Reagents
  • Separation of a mixture
  • Serial dilutions
  • Determining pH
  • Conductivity testing
  • Observations from reagent mixing (color change, precipitate formation, etc.)
  • Distinguishing between physical and chemical changes


Chromatography is a fairly simple task, however it can easily be messed up. To start take the strip and place a dot with the pen/juice/solute towards the bottom of the paper (should be around an inch from bottom, it doesn't matter as long as you have room to place it in the water underneath). At this point waiting is crucial, the time it take may vary based on the solute or distance from solvent, but wait for the results to separate (colors will be separated and no longer spreading out).

Retardation/Retention Factor may be asked. The retardation factor is simply the distance the substance moved divided by the distance of the solvent front.

2016 National Tournament Trial Events

Division B: Hovercraft · Geocaching · Potions and Poisons | Division C: Code Busters · Mystery Design · Remote Sensing