According to UMass Memorial Medical Center, 27-year-old Kai Chen and his 63-year-old mother Kam Look were poisoned from eating mushrooms, known as “death caps,” which they found growing near their home a few weeks ago in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The two survived, and one of their doctors recently told the Boston Globe it was thanks to the help of Legalon, an experimental drug flown in from Philadelphia made from an extract of the milk thistle plant. Kam did, however, require a liver transplant and the two suffered kidney damage as well.
“The treatment involved getting special permission from the FDA to provide an antidote that’s currently an investigational drug – and then to get that antidote emergently cured from Philadelphia” said Dr. Stephanie Carreiro, from the Division of Toxicology at UMass Memorial Medical Center in a press conference. “We had tried many methods to try to remove the toxin from their bodies. And ultimately, for Kam, it also required liver transplantation.”
Death caps, known amongst nerds as Amanita phalloides, are a mushroom that grow pervasively throughout California and most of the world. According to Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz, the mushrooms are all white from top to bottom and commonly grow on wood chips but can be found more or less anywhere in North America. The fatality rate for those who consume death caps varies depending on the source from 25 to 50%.
Death caps and a handful of other particularly prolific and toxic species of mushrooms cause fatalities in people who ingest them every year, largely because the symptoms do not set in immediately after consuming. By the time people seek help, it is often too late and the liver damage has already begun. Kai Chen did, however, tell CBS Boston that they felt something was off pretty quickly.
“This should be a very big cautionary tale,” Kai Chen said in a press conference. “Be careful of what you find out there in the woods, especially mushrooms.”
Levon Durr, owner of a mushroom cultivation business called Fungaia Farms in Eureka, CA, told High Times that death caps have actually just as of this year been recorded in places they have otherwise not yet been found, which could indicate climate change has allowed them to gain more ground, so to speak.
“Amanita phalloides (death cap) has officially been recorded in Humboldt County last year and seems to have been migrating north over the last decade. They have been recorded in the Bay Area for years now and then became more common in Mendocino County and now Humboldt,” Durr said. “The theory is the warming, drying climate has opened up new habitats for them to move north. So, it begs to hypothesize we will, unfortunately, see more poisonings as it expands its habitat into areas where people are less familiar with the death cap.”
Mushroom foraging season is upon us and despite all the most grim warnings I can think of, people will still inevitably go out and mistake one thing for another every year. Mushroom experts have collectively warned the community at large for decades that proper mushroom identification is extremely difficult and requires much more extensive legwork than simple photo comparison. For instance, one of the most commonly hunted psychedelic mushrooms known as “Wavy caps” (Psilocybe cyanescens) have a deadly look-alike called Galerina marginata that oftentimes are virtually impossible to distinguish between without proper training.
“When collecting wild mushrooms for food, one rule supersedes all others. When in doubt, throw it out. If you are not sure that your mushroom is edible, don’t eat it.” – Excerpt from Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast.