July 9, 2015

Overview of poisonings in North America

Annually in the US, the North American Mycological Association registers very few deaths related to wild mushroom consumption, generally less than four per year. Of course, a much greater number experience gastrointestinal distress, nausea and fatigue: dozens of people who have eaten raw mushrooms, eaten excessive amounts, or tried hallucinogenic specimens visit the hospital yearly. Individual food intolerances and allergies, even to well known edible species, may also be involved.

After 2013, a year in which no deaths were reported, 2014 was relatively deadly in the US: of 78 hospitalizations, four were fatal. All these fatalities involved one of the white Amanita species, such as the appropriately named «Death Cap» (Amanita phalloides) and the «Destroying Angel» (Amanita bisporigera, A. virosa and relatives). In fact, the amatoxins contained in certain species of Amanitas and Galerinas (Galerina marginata) account for 90% of casualties worldwide. 

Species whose ingestion resulted in hospitalization include the usual suspects: Gyromitra (Gyromitra esculenta) and Clitocybe (Clitocybe dealbata), but also certain prized edibles: excessive ingestion of Verpas (Verpa bohemica) and undercooked the Blewits (Lepista nuda) for instance. 

In Québec, the most recent case of deadly poisoning dates back to 2009 and the previous to 2004, both involving recreational pickers. Confusion between chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius and the like) and Jack O’lanterns (Omphalatus illudens), both of similar color, have lead a few eaters to the emergency room, without causing death. 

The regional toll may seem light compared to the 50 or so who die in snowmobile and quad accidents each year. One might even wonder as to why the toll is not much heavier, considering the increasing popularity of mushroom foraging. Unsurprisingly, the number of poisoning cases is highly correlated with the seasonal abundance of the wild mushrooms themselves: wet weather means a good harvest season and thus an increase in poisonings. In North Eastern N.orth America, recent temperatures signal productive foraging.

Basic precautions to retain when consuming wild mushrooms: 

• Carefully verify edibility 

• Cook well 

• Avoid eating excessive amounts 

Bon appétit! 

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