I’m no Dan Savage, but I am a toxicologist. And if Dan and I switched jobs for a day, I would give amorous men one piece of advice: Please don’t eat toad toxins to get an erection.
Toad poisonings are rare but life-threatening. Men and women have died from heart attacks after eating herbal supplements called Chan Su, or aphrodisiacs called Rockhard or Love Stone. These products all contain the dried, toxic secretions of Asiatic or cane toads. Similarly, people have been sickened and even died after drinking toad soup, eating toad eggs, or swallowing live toads to win a bet.
So please, don’t take toad-toxin aphrodisiacs. Like many other unregulated, untested “natural” products, they can poison people in very natural ways.
Poisoning and death probably weren’t on the minds of the men who bought “hard, dark brown” squares of aphrodisiacs from New York City street vendors. Between 1993 and 1995, at least six men fell ill and four died from heart failure caused by the aphrodisiacs’ active ingredients: toxic bufadienolides. These toad toxins were also responsible for the death of a middle-aged American in 2003 after he consumed three “sex pills.” And they were the same toxins that led to an Indian man’s weeklong hospitalization in 2011, after he ate five to six toads over the course of “an eventful morning.”
It’s hard to blame the toads for these casualties. To protect themselves against predators like dogs and snakes, the cane toad has evolved the ability to secrete toxins from its skin and the parotid gland behind its ears. This “viscous white fluid” is a stew of chemicals that induces convulsions, vomiting, and even death in would-be predators. Even though this chemical stew can reportedly cause priapism—a painful, persistent erection—it also contains toxic bufadienolides, which poison the heart.
Scientists are still figuring out how toad toxins disrupt the heart’s beating and cause it to fail. In 2015, Chinese chemists examined the effects of Chan Su in rats. They found that the toxins poisoned the rats’ heart cells by disrupting their mitochondria, which supply energy to the cells. But even without knowing exactly how bufadienolides poison the heart, scientists and doctors have figured out that both mice and people can survive toad poisonings when they are quickly injected with antibodies that neutralize the toxins. These injections work best when they’re given as soon as possible—meaning that someone who has eaten a toad or swallowed an aphrodisiac must overcome embarrassment and confess quickly to the emergency room physicians.
After those four deaths in 1995, the FDA banned the importation and sale of Chan Su, Love Stone, and Rockhard. Unfortunately, the FDA did not—and still does not—have the power to require that “natural” products be tested for efficacy or safety before sale. And Americans can still buy other untested, unregulated supplements to cure sexual dysfunction, alleviate menopause symptoms, or “detoxify” the liver.
Ultimately, I think Dan Savage would agree with me here: If it’s a choice between a stronger penis or a stronger heart, choose the heart.
Read more of Slate’s stories on poisonous animals: