New Jersey is experiencing an explosion of reported mushroom poisoning in recent weeks, a situation that could be the second-biggest spike in toxic fungi incidents in more than a decade.
Experts are warning outdoor enthusiasts to avoid picking and eating the potentially deadly fungi — even if they have some knowledge of mycology, or access to an online guide — and are urging caution with children and pets. Details on the types of mushrooms involved were not publicly available.
The New Jersey Poison Information and Education System has logged reports of 15 people being sickened after eating wild mushrooms since late July, with several people being hospitalized with “potentially life-threatening consequences.” The patients live in different parts of the state and range in age from 15 months to 75 years.
“Picking and eating wild mushrooms can be a dangerous game,” said Dr. Diane Calello, medical director of the poison center, which is part of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, adding that even a few bites can cause sickness.
“Even those who think they can identify a toxic mushroom can be fooled,” she added, noting that there are many “lookalike” species.
According to the Department of Health, which works with NJPIES to track poisoning outbreaks, of these 15 reports of ‘mushroom exposure,’ four of them met the standards or could be documented by the DOH as mushroom poisonings. Another case was reported directly to DOH.
As a result, the state has logged a total of five confirmed mushroom poisonings this year, all of which seem to be independent incidents involving different batches of fungi. According to federal reports dating back a decade, only once — in 2014, when nine patients were confirmed to be sickened by mushrooms — has New Jersey seen such an outbreak.
“Exposures to wild mushrooms should be taken very seriously and evaluated carefully, especially because signs and symptoms can vary based on the type of mushroom,” said Nicole Kirgan, a spokesperson for the DOH.
“A call was warranted in each of these situations” reported to NJPIES, Kirgan explained, “but unless mushroom toxin ingestion is accompanied with clinical illness that has been confirmed by a healthcare provider, we do not classify it as a confirmed case.”
Poisonings can result in breathing problems, loss of consciousness, vomiting, diarrhea, and more, resulting in severe dehydration, organ damage, and even death, according to the poison center. Officials urged people to take action right away if someone eats a wild mushroom, not to waste time looking it up on the Internet or waiting to see if any symptoms do appear.
If the patient needs urgent attention, call 911 immediately. If not, people should call the NJPIES hotline at 1-800-222-1222, which has specialists available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The poison center urges people to remove any parts of the “shroom from the patient’s” mouth and put them in a paper bag (not plastic) for further analysis and, if possible, take a digital picture of the fungi with a coin or other common object to help indicate size.
According to the North American Mycological Association, of the roughly 10,000 or so larger fungi in North America, “fewer than 100 are dangerously poisonous. On the flip side, fewer than 100 are distinctive, good edibles.”
Difficult to ID
The association produces detailed reports involving potential poisonings and notes it is hard to clearly identify these situations: some are adverse reactions to normally edible mushrooms, other involve bad outcomes after purposely ingesting technically poisonous, but commonly used fungi known for their psychedelic affects. The organization encourages people to report poisonings through their website as well.
(NAMA also reports on animal poisoning and notes that, with pets, dogs are far more likely to eat a mushroom and get sick than cats.)
According to NAMA, 2014 was a particularly bad year, with 78 reported poisonings in North America and four deaths. While the qualifications for reporting varies with each entity, the association’s findings square with data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which suggest 2014 was a banner year for mushroom poisonings in the Garden State and the worst in more than a decade.
Reports culled from the CDC’s online tool for charting foodborne outbreaks shows that in 2014 New Jersey saw nine people who had illnesses that were clinically linked to wild mushroom consumption, four of whom had to be hospitalized. No one died.
When officials investigated further, they found that some of the nine cases were tied to the same source. As a result, the CDC lists four mushroom poisoning “outbreaks” for 2014, with each one sickening multiple patients. No other outbreaks, illnesses, or hospitalizations were reported between 2005 and 2015 in New Jersey, according to the CDC database, which relies on reports from state and local health departments.