Atlantic Monthly

Anthrax and English Breakfast

Originally appeared on

In the current issue of Microbiologist, researchers report that tea could be an antidote to anthrax.

Anthrax, scourge of tabloid staffers, has infected exactly one person in the U.S. during the last five years — a New York musician who contracted it from the raw African animal skins he used to make drums. Those of us who procure our hides from reputable sources face no danger. But if anthrax does break out, commonly consumed plants (slightly modified) do seem to be one of our best defenses. A few years ago, researchers rejiggered the genomes of tobacco cells to produce anthrax antigens, a first step toward making a safer vaccine. And now it appears that Earl Grey, in addition to his supposed aphrodisiac effects, could fight off the bacillus, without any modification at all.

But tea can fight terror in a subtler way as well. A wilderness first-responder — the kind of guy who scours the forests for hikers who have fallen in pits or frozen to death — advised me that the most important tool in a survival kit is a packet of tea, because panic kills, and the routine of boiling water and steeping a tea-bag soothes the frantic breast. Except when airways or circulation are blocked, or a wound is furiously pumping out arterial blood, another ten minutes of Lipton-time hurts nothing, and banishes the panicky haste that could make you stumble off a cliff on your way back to safety. Given the abundance of perfectly antiseptic hides, and the destructive and expensive fraidy-cat approach to anthrax in vogue these days, I imagine that the primary relevance of tea to terror will remain psychological for a long time to come.


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