The poisonous secret hidden in some souvenirs arriving at Halifax airport

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When the snow starts to fly, border services officer Christopher McIntosh has a good idea what he’ll find in the luggage of Halifax vacationers returning from down south, and they often don’t know about a potential danger.

It’s not drugs or weapons, but something that could be just as dangerous — beady red or orange eyes staring up at him. The eyes, known as jequirity beans, are often attached to small wooden statues carved to resemble an animal.

The beans are the seeds of Abrus precatorius plant, which contains the toxin abrin, according to the Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System. 

The website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says abrin causes illness because it gets into the cells of the body and prevents cells from producing the proteins they need. Without those proteins, the cells die.  

Most Nova Scotians buy ornaments with the jequirity beans in them as souvenirs, never suspecting the beans aren’t allowed to enter the country. (David Burke/CBC)

“They are a poisonous bean that people use because they’re esthetically pleasing, they look like a little ladybug. They’re used for things like eyes, jewelry, and people don’t understand just how poisonous they can be and how toxic they are,” said McIntosh, who works for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

If swallowed, the beans could make a person sick and possibly kill them, according to botanist Marian Munro, who researched the bean just before she retired as botany curator for the Nova Scotia Museum.

Jequirity beans can be red or orange in colour, and are often used as ornaments in crafts sold to tourists in the tropics. (David Burke/CBC)

The beans are not allowed in Canada, but show up in Nova Scotians’ luggage on a regular basis, said McIntosh.

The CBSA sees an upswing in the numbers coming in during the winter when many Canadians vacation in the tropics.

Many people have no idea they’re carrying a prohibited product in their bags.

Border services officers have numerous ways to check if people are trying to bring prohibited goods into the country, including using X-ray machines. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

“Down there, people can find these touristy items that they think are cute and want to bring back as a trinket or souvenir from their trip, and unfortunately they don’t understand the dangers that they pose to not only themselves, but those around them,” said MacIntosh.

Eating the beans can cause vomiting, diarrhea, seizures and hallucinations. Within a few days, it can cause the liver, spleen and kidneys to stop working and the person could die, according to the CDC’s website.

“My concern would be the jewelry that we wear, young children getting ahold of it, one bean is enough to kill an adult, I can’t imagine how little would be required to kill a child. I don’t know if the risk is worth it,” said Munro.

If swallowed, the beans could make a person sick and possibly kill them, says Marian Munro, a botanist and former curator of botany at the Nova Scotia Museum. (Robert Short/CBC)

The jequirity beans are attached to a wooden object, but it doesn’t mean they’ll stay there forever.

“These items are handcrafted, you know, they’re glued in place,” said McIntosh. “I think it’s very easy for someone to potentially remove that item. Again, the jewelry things like that, they fall apart, the string breaks, things deteriorate.”

McIntosh says there’s a risk the beans could fall out and accidentally be swallowed. (David Burke/CBC)

When McIntosh or any of his colleagues find an item with a jequirity bean in it, it’s seized and destroyed. Along the way, the border officer tells the item’s owner about the dangers of the bean and why they’re prohibited in Canada.

“I think it’s important [for] the travelling public to take the time if they’re going to be travelling abroad and take a look at our website, try to educate themselves as much as they can,” said McIntosh. 

He hopes that education combined with word of mouth from travellers mean he and his co-workers will eventually see fewer red eyes in luggage.

A necklace made of jequirity beans. Any item with the bean is seized and destroyed. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Read more articles from CBC Nova Scotia

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