I have a small number of people (300ish) that live in marshlands/bog/wetlands environment. They are infertile, live about two thirds of a normal lifespan, and have hallucinations, poor memory, lethargy. Remove them from the environment and they recover mentally, although the physical symptoms can be permanent.

Something about their environment is affecting them. What is it?

Notes -

  • They are given children each year, between 3-5 years old (so the numbers remain fairly constant),
  • They are given food and water, although they can eat anything edible that is local and easily accessible,
  • They need to be able to look after children, who are also affected by the substance,
  • It is an earthlike world with humans as we know them,
  • It can be natural or man-made but only by Roman technology.
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    $\begingroup$ That's a tough one, given the unusually long lifespan you've specified (Classic Rome's was circa 20/30 years). $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 10:44
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, Draft. Don't get sidetracked by the life-span thing. Whilst technology is about equivalent to Rome 280 BC, 2000 years have passed since then and hygiene and nutrition have improved. Technology is being actively suppressed which is keeping everything else at about the same level. In this scenario, the normal life span is about 50 years for people not under the influence. $\endgroup$
    – Hukk2010
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Draft: The life expectancy at birth was low in ancient Rome. But if the child made it to 10 years of age they could expect to live in their 60s or 70s. In other words, not many Romans died in their 20s or 30s; they either died in infancy, or else they lived about as long as we do. (OK, not really as long as we do; maybe about 10 to 15 years less, depending on which country is "we".) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 11:59
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    $\begingroup$ This question is exactly the 200.00th post on this site. 😃 $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Victor Do I get a prize for that :) $\endgroup$
    – Hukk2010
    Commented Apr 3, 2021 at 12:56

6 Answers 6



The Solanacea are a variety of similar plants, many of them are used as food, including tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers and chilli peppers. Tomatoes, and many solanaceaes, are rich in vitamin C.

Among them, there is also unedible plants with mild neurotoxins, like the tobacco, which contains nicotine.

However, some solanaceae are very poisonous, like the belladonna. I will quote the relevant section from wikipedia:

Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants known, and its use by mouth increases risk in numerous clinical conditions, such as complications of pregnancy, cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal disorders, and psychiatric disorders, among others. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids. Roots have up to 1.3%, leaves 1.2%, stalks 0.65%, flowers 0.6%, ripe berries 0.7%, and seeds 0.4% tropane alkaloids; leaves reach maximal alkaloid content when the plant is budding and flowering, roots are most poisonous in the end of the plant's vegetation period. Belladonna nectar is transformed by bees into honey that also contains tropane alkaloids. The berries pose the greatest danger to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste. The root of the plant is generally the most toxic part, though this can vary from one specimen to another.

The active agents in belladonna, atropine, hyoscine (scopolamine), and hyoscyamine, have anticholinergic properties. The symptoms of belladonna poisoning include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severely dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions.

So, what you need is a species of solanaceae that:

  • Is common and abundant in the area.

  • Has some of belladonna's toxins, but on a lower concentration, so people who consume it become intoxicated, but do not die.

  • Be the sole relevant source of vitamin C in the area, so its inhabitants have to consume it periodically in order to avoid scurvy.

  • The plant also contains nicotine, so people that consumes it become addicted and don't try to endure scurvy or trade for some substitute.


Ergot Variants:

This sounds like some version of ergot poisoning, or possibly a related toxicity from another similar fungus. Ergot caused a wide variety of neurological conditions, and is often cited as the cause for the Salem witch trials. In ancient societies, this was a common toxicity. There are potentiators that interact with ergot at lower doses to trigger side effects, and perhaps your region has some specific potentiator that is present, amplifying the local effects (or there is just a lot of fungus in your wet environment producing toxin). The drug's effects on blood vessels eventually cause gangrene, which would definitely shorten lifespan and the same effect causes frequent miscarriages. Lost fingers and toes would definitely be permanent, but a prolonged period away from the ergot would reverse many of the symptoms (although there could be developmental effects). The ergot toxin can be passed through breast milk, so be careful when caring for infants.

  • $\begingroup$ And because it's a mold, ergot will affect even the food they're given in that marshlands environment. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 5, 2021 at 19:00

You describe iodine deficiency.

Health Consequences of Iodine deficiency

Iodine Deficiency Disorders (IDD) are one of the biggest worldwide public health problem of today. Their effect is hidden and profoundly affects the quality of human life. Iodine deficiency occurs when the soil is poor in iodine, causing a low concentration in food products and insufficient iodine intake in the population. When iodine requirements are not met, the thyroid may no longer be able to synthesize sufficient amounts of thyroid hormone. The resulting low-level of thyroid hormones in the blood is the principal factor responsible for the series of functional and developmental abnormalities, collectively referred to as IDD.


Hypothyroidism signs and symptoms may include:


-Increased sensitivity to cold


-Dry skin

-Weight gain

-Puffy face


-Muscle weakness

-Elevated blood cholesterol level

-Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness

-Pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints

-Heavier than normal or irregular menstrual periods

-Thinning hair

-Slowed heart rate


-Impaired memory

-Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)

Not on this list is myxedema madness: frank psychosis from profound hypothyroidism. This accounts for the subset of your people with hallucination.

Iodine deficient women often miscarry.

If pregnant women’s diets do not contain adequate iodine, the foetus cannot produce enough thyroxin and foetal growth is retarded. Hypothyroid foetuses often perish in the womb and many infants die within a week of birth...

Viable infants often have profound developmental defects. In some places this was and is the number one cause of developmental defects. It is to prevent this that iodine is added to salt worldwide.

Your people live in a region with little or no iodine. There are large swaths of inland areas for which is the case and I have read theories that this was part of the reason Catholics were told to eat fish on friday; fish often has some iodine.

The persons giving them extra food either do not give food with added iodine because they don't know what is going on with these folks, or they don't have it. or for their own reasons keep them iodine deficient.

These people are not being poisoned. They are not doing anything wrong. The one deviation from your scenario is that if people leave the area and take in iodine, they get better all around. Persons who are developmentally disabled from congenital hypothyroidism do not get better.


Heavy metal poisoning — a mixture of lead, arsenic, mercury, manganese, and maybe a few others should be enough to produce these effects..

Manganese poisoning can cause mental health problems, including hallucinations.

Mercury poisoning can cause lethargy.

Chronic lead and arsenic poisoning can lead to a number of health problems, such as high blood pressure and cancer, which will certainly reduce life expectancy.

And it's very plausible that people exposed to a mixture of heavy metals will have substantially reduced fertility.

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    $\begingroup$ Lead poisoning, at least, can cause irreversible changes to a child's nervous system leading to long-term cognitive problems. Other heavy metals may have similar effects. This doesn't quite fit with the desire that the residents will "recover mentally" when removed from the environment. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 5, 2021 at 21:11

Microwave sources/emissions

I find myself wondering whether some source of low to medium intensity generally pervasive environmental microwave levels could be a candidate.

Microwaves are non-ionising (low energy) radiation, that transfer as heat and elevated kinetic energy, upon interacting with water and fats and a few other things (which is why we use them to cook).

They have a number of interesting properties that make them candidates if I've got the biochemistry right.

  • they can be tuned to occur at a level that has a physiological and neurological detrimental effect, rather than say, no effect or quickly lethal illness.
  • they would be absorbed at a low level by water and fats in the body, and brain (huge blood flow, delicate chemical balance),which they would heat or disrupt depending on the local microwave intensity.
  • they are known to have cognitive effects similar to those in the question - the paper mentions and cites elsewhere, effects such as "widespread neuropsychiatric effects.... including depression... mental health disorders... memory... facial expression recognition... emotions (amygdala)... attention deficit...."
  • they almost certainly affect lifespan and general health.
  • they almost certainly as part of the environment could reduce fertility (eg sperm production and storage is highly temperature sensitive, which is why testes move closer or hang away from the warm torso, but movement couldn't help them escape environmental microwave sources, and sperm production is close to the body surface so they would be impacted)
  • but they don't cause acute illness except at very high intensity (body fluids beyond sustainable.life damage etc)
  • once away from the source, many of the neurological and some physical symptoms probably begin to reverse.

Mild milk sickness

Milk sickness produces both listlessness and insanity, although I'm not sure if it causes infertility. It also causes sensitivity to light, which would go along with the bog environment they live in.

However, large (or even medium) doses of it are very deadly.

Therefore, you could do a little handwaving to produce another (seemingly) edible plant that produces tremetol, the "active ingredient" in White Snakeroot.


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