Amatoxin – Why I Don’t Eat Wild Mushrooms

Posted in Poisons with tags , , on July 27, 2017 by Dr. Steven Farmer


Amatoxin, Deathcap, Mushrooms

It seemed like a nice gift at the time for the family in Salinas, California. The friendly stranger who been up in the mountains foraging for mushrooms earlier in the day had gifted a young woman some of the mushrooms he’d found. She later grilled them for dinner for her family, her sister and a friend. She ate three mushrooms herself, her husband had four, and their toddler daughter was given a taster: half a cap. Her sister ate one cap and stalk, while the friend only picked at a few pieces.


Unknowing they had all just eaten one of the deadliest wild mushrooms in the world, the Death Cap mushroom, or Amanita phalloides. Responsible for 90% of mushroom poisonings, the Death Cap thrives in every continent save Antarctica. Once it enters the gastrointestinal tract, it takes only one half of one large mushroom to kill a person. That’s an estimated dose of 7mg for an adult.


For several hours, the family and their guests felt fine. But unknown to them, a toxin in the mushrooms they’d eaten had already begun to ravage their livers. Later, they began to experience vomiting, cramps, diarrhea and nausea. Within 24 hours of having eaten the mushrooms, the family of three was admitted to hospital. While the parents made a full recovery, the toddler needed a liver transplant. She also suffered permanent brain damage during her 36 day recovery.


The following day the sister and the family friend checked in for medical treatment. Within the week the sister had undergone a liver transplant. Meanwhile the friend who had ingested no more than a few pieces of the Death Cap made a full recovery.


Death Caps grow predominantly under the massive, gnarled Coast Live Oaks found west of the central valleys. Under the shadow of these magnificent evergreen trees lies a harvest of death with olive-green caps. While the Death Cap is more prevalent in the fall and winter, they can survive throughout the year in areas covered by coastal fog. They love the damp of a deep, dark forest.


Mature Death Cap mushrooms have caps like flattish plates upturned at the edges. Early in development, the caps look more like small domes. It is the young mushrooms especially which can be trickier to distinguish from those mushrooms safe to eat. A slightly greener color to the cap can confuse even seasoned mushroom foragers. For the novices they can find themselves gambling their lives on a tidbit found in the wild.


Death Cap mushrooms have no distinctive taste or smell, and their poisonous effects are not neutralized by cooking. They’re apparently delicious and look edible, and often grow among species which are safe to eat. Death Cap mushrooms are large, smooth and olive-green. Unlike some benign species they have gills, or ribs, under the cap. But the real kicker is the presence of a cup-shaped piece of tissue at the base of the stalk called a volva. This tiny sac only becomes visible once the Death Cap has been plucked, and can be easily missed.


The Death Cap mushroom is spreading in California, leading to more and more severe poisoning cases. The killer fungus is believed to have been imported on the roots of decorative shrubs in the 1930s and 1940s. Since then it has spread across the state, favoring damp woodlands.


Like other members of the Amanita species, phalloides contains cyclic octapeptides called amatoxin. These have a similar structure to proteins but with only an eight amino acid sequence.


Amatoxin is insoluble in water, and cannot be destroyed by heat. Once ingested, it enters the bloodstream and reaches the major organs, eventually shutting them down. All organs are prone to amatoxin damage, but those with high rates of protein synthesis are the most vulnerable, such as the liver, kidneys and brain. It is the liver which the amatoxins attack first, and whose disintegration is most likely to cause death. Severe damage to the heart is also often fatal.


Doctors have identified three clinical stages over the course of amatoxin poisoning. After an initial latent period of 6 – 12 hours where the patient is asymptomatic, the first stage heralds the onset of preliminary symptoms. These include exhaustion, fluid loss, vomiting, nausea, abdominal cramps, and a cholera-like, watery diarrhea.


These first symptoms usually last no longer than 24 hours and the patient can outwardly appear to be improving. Some patients have even been sent home only to return to the hospital again during this second stage of amatoxin poisoning. Here the amatoxins are still rampantly destroying liver cells, but only laboratory analysis will detect it.


As liver hepatotoxicity increases the patient starts to exhibit the classic symptoms of liver failure. This is the third stage. Sometimes at this point doctors will recourse to a liver transplant if certain selection criteria are met. But up to 20% of amatoxin poisonings prove fatal, and once this third stage is reached, the patient can be dead within the week.


The Death Cap mushroom is a crafty and dangerous little critter to pick. But it’s worth remembering that 99% of over 5000 mushroom species are benign to humans. If you’re a novice at mushroom foraging you are still advised to exert extreme caution. Always consult a good reference book, and better still, an expert mycologist before consuming any wild mushrooms. The risk to health just isn’t worth eating something you’re not 100% sure about, especially if it’s been given you by a stranger.


Enjoy this article?  My book has tons more just like it!

Your Car’s Battery Can Be Deadly

Posted in Uncategorized on February 22, 2017 by Dr. Steven Farmer

This is not something that happens often, but it happened. A Car battery which was broken or damaged caused the death of mother and 3-year-old daughter. They were found with no signs of life in their car. The cause of death was determined to be poisoning with very toxic gas: hydrogen sulfide from a car batter battery, which has been placed under the driver’s seat. In this case, the smell was so intense that first responders were forced to initially retreat. Car batteries are usually sealed and should not emit any gas. However, this case showed that there is always the exception.

A car battery consists basically of two lead plates which are immersed into sulfuric acid. During regular charging and discharging cycles of batteries containing sulfuric acid, there shouldn’t be any hydrogen sulfide production. So how can hydrogen sulfide occur? It can be produced by the broken battery or by heat production when overcharging it. In such conditions, hydrogen can be released from the sulphuric acid solution which can form the poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas.

Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas with the characteristic smell of rotten eggs. It is very poisonous, corrosive, and flammable. It’s heavier than air, so it’s accumulating at the bottom of poorly vented spaces. Once you can smell it, it means that its concentrations are high enough to be toxic. It affects many systems in the human body and the one which is the most affected is the nervous system.

When air has been contaminated with hydrogen sulfide even a few breaths can cause a loss of the sense of smell and the lack of awareness of surroundings. In the case of even short exposure to high concentration of hydrogen sulfide, death can occur in few moments. The main cause of death is because of inhibitory properties of hydrogen sulfide, which stops cells’ ability to absorb oxygen. In short, the victims die from suffocation. The best course of action if you think you are smelling hydrogen sulfide gas is to vent the space,  and leave until it’s properly vented.


Are you ready for powdered alcohol?

Posted in Uncategorized on March 21, 2015 by Dr. Steven Farmer


You should be because early in march the controversial powdered alcohol product call Palcohol received approval from The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). As part of the U.S. Treasury Department, the TTB has the authority to review the formulation and labeling of distilled spirits products. The Palcohol product would come in 100 ml pouches, with five ounces (150 ml) of water being added to the powder inside to create the equivalent of an alcoholic drink. The Arizona-based company which produces Palcohol, Lipsmark LLC, has been given approval for four flavors of powdered alcohol: cosmopolitan, margarita, vodka, and rum.
Because Palcohol is an entirely new form of alcohol, there has been intense concern from legislatures about the possible misuse by people. Concerns include accidental overdose due to unfamiliarity with its potency, the possibly of its flavors being appealing to small children, it could be easy to sneak powdered alcohol into public events, people may try to snort the powder, and powdered alcohol could be used to surreptitiously spike a drink. The TTB was quick to point out that although Palcohol has received federal approval, states can also regulate alcohol sales within their borders. This is exactly what multiple states – including South Carolina, Louisiana and Vermont — have done by preemptively banning powdered alcohol products. Other states – such as Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Massachusetts — have proposed obstructive legislation against powdered alcohol products.
So how does powdered alcohol work? Although the actual formulation of Palcohol is a secret, the process of making powdered alcohols is quite well-known. In fact, a U.S. patent for powdered alcohol products was submitted by the General Foods Corporation in 1972. To put it simply, the liquid alcohol is absorbed by a solid substance which retains it solid form. A good example of this is how a sponge can absorb water and still remain a solid. Now imagine a powder made up of a multitude of tiny sponges and you are getting close to what is going on. In the case of Palcohol, the absorbent substance is most likely made of a class of molecules called dextrins. Dextrins are made by breaking up starch, which is produced by many common foods such as potatoes, corn, and rice. Dextrins are commonly used as the absorbing agent in powdered alcohols because they do not increase the sweetness of the drink, are easily dissolved in cold water, and do not impart any flavor. Also, dextrins are known to produce powders even with an alcohol content of 60%.
If you are ready for powdered alcohol it should be commercially available this summer!

What is the source of the drugs vicodin, percocet, oxycodone, oxycontin & percodan?

Posted in Chemistry Trivia with tags , , , , , on October 28, 2012 by Dr. Steven Farmer

The original source of the molecules used to make these painkillers is the opium poppy.  A molecule called thebaine is isolated from the opium poppy.  Thebaine is then used to make many prescription painkillers.

Currently, fifteen countries legally grow opium poppies for use in pharmaceuticals.  These include: Australia, China, France, Hungary, India, Japan, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

Oxycodone was first created by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer (the same one that makes aspirin) because they stopped selling heroin due to problems with addiction.  It was hoped that a thebaine-derived drug would retain the painkilling effects of heroin with less of the euphoric high which leads to addiction.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.  When looking at the structures of thebaine, oxycodone, and heroin, it is easy to see that their structures are quite similar and therefore easy to believe their effects are similar.   It is interesting to note that painkillers are considered the most abused prescription drugs in the United States.  Also, painkillers (opioids) are one of the most prescribed class of drugs in the United States.

What is the most toxic substance known?

Posted in Chemistry Trivia with tags , , , , , , , on October 24, 2012 by Dr. Steven Farmer

The most toxic substance known is the Botulinum toxin, a neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.  Ingestion of this toxin produces botulism.

A typical lethal dose = 0.00000002 grams, meaning that one hundred grams could kill every human on earth.  Another way to consider its toxicity to realize it is 40 million times more powerful than cyanide.

By blocking neurons, the toxin renders the muscles unable to contract for a period of 4 to 6 months.  Death is generally caused by suffocation due to the paralysis of respiratory muscles.

Oddly enough, the muscle paralyzing properties of the Botulinum toxin has been utilized in medicine to treat: muscle spasms, migraines, excessive salivation, and uncontrollable blinking.

During the use of the Botulinum toxic to treat eye muscle disorders, it was noticed that the frown lines between the eyebrows were softened.  This effect was quickly capitalized on to produce one of the most common cosmetic procedures in the United State, Botox.

Think Spray-On Sunscreen is safe? Try a fireball!

Posted in Consumer Products with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2012 by Dr. Steven Farmer

On October 19, 2012 Energizer Holdings Inc., the makers of Banana Boat sun care products, voluntarily recalled 23 varieties of UltraMist sunscreen.  What is the problem you ask?  A faulty spray valve has been over applying the product resulting in the lotion taking longer to dry.   No problem still?  You have to also consider that many aerosol products, such as hairspray and spray-on deodorants, contain flammable ingredients like alcohol, and you begin to see the problem.  Apparently, several people have caught on fire after applying the product and coming in contact with open flames.  Thus far there have been five reported cases.  One involved a man standing too close to a barbeque and another involved a woman who was welding.  Both cases caused second and third degree burns.  If you can believe it, UltraMist products contain the warning “Keep away from sources of ignition — no smoking” printed right on the bottle.  I checked my own bottle and it was there.  For more details check out the company’s statement at :

Who I am!

Posted in Uncategorized on October 13, 2012 by Dr. Steven Farmer

I am a university professor who holds a doctorate in organic chemistry.   In addition to working in the industry for a short while I have taught general and organic chemistry courses at three different campuses.  After teaching chemistry for a while I, noticed that the more interesting and edgy aspects of chemistry were never discussed in textbooks and in lectures.  As a student I remembered that any stories told by instructors, which ties the material in with real life, tended to have a dramatic impact on me.  To that end, I have created this blog to highlight the many strange ways chemistry shows up in our lives.