French authorities have warned the public about the risks of confusing toxic and edible plants after the death of a man last month.

In June, a 63-year-old man died after eating water hemlock — also known as water dropwort —  after confusing it with root parsley that he grew and picked in his own garden. Between 2012 and 2019, poison control centers in the country recorded 15 other cases in which water hemlock was confused with an edible plant.

The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (ANSES) called for greater vigilance and issued advice on avoiding the risk of potentially deadly intoxication resulting in poisoning.

The agency said some toxic plants resemble edible plants, leading to confusion in the wild, in home gardens, or in vegetable patches. Picking plants for consumption is not without risk, according to the agency.

Common plant type confusion
In 2018, a 78-year-old man died after picking and eating monkhood leaves while out walking. He had confused the highly toxic plant with striped hemlock, which is usually eaten with salad.

Last May, the Regional Health Agency for Eastern France issued an alert after poison control centers reported 20 cases of intoxication caused by confusion between meadow saffron and wild garlic or perennial leek.

Since 2012, ANSES has registered more than 250 cases per year of mistaken identity in plants that lead to illnesses. Overall, 1,872 victims were registered between 2012 and 2018. All age groups were involved, including children younger than 6 years old.

Cases of mistaken identity concern all sorts of plants and depending on the season may involve flowers, bulbs, seeds, berries, roots or leaves.

ANSES has a list of the plants, in French, that are most frequently confused and/or cause the most severe cases. It includes bulb plants mistaken for onion, garlic or shallots, horse chestnut for chestnut, colocynth or non-edible squash for edible squash, oand cuckoo pint for sorrel or spinach.

Common symptoms are digestive disorders such as stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which can be severe in the case of plants such as colocynths.

Some plants cause cardiac or neurological disorders that can prove fatal. This can occur when white hellebore is mistaken for yellow gentian, deadly nightshade for grapevine, or foxglove for comfrey.

Wild mushroom poisoning in Hong Kong
Meanwhile, research in Hong Kong has revealed 46 instances of mushroom poisoning from 2010 to the end of May this year.

The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) of the Department of Health recorded the food poisoning cases related to wild mushrooms. Most such poisoning is caused by eating toxic species mistaken as edible ones.

Amanita phalloides or the death cap mushroom is shown here.

This past week, CHP revealed it was investigating a suspected food poisoning case related to consumption of wild mushrooms involving a 50-year-old man.

Most toxin-producing mushrooms cannot be made non-toxic by processing methods such as soaking, peeling, cooking or freezing. There is no specific treatment for mushroom poisoning. Patients with liver failure may require transplants as a result of eating poisonous mushrooms.

From 2010 to 2018, the annual number of people affected ranged from two to seven and the most cases were recorded from April to June. Of the 46 patients involved, 17 were male and 29 were female. The age range was from nine to 86 years old. Time from ingestion of the incriminating mushrooms to onset of symptoms ranged from 30 minutes to 19 hours, with a median of two hours.

Hospital treatment and one death
Common symptoms were gastrointestinal including diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and nausea. Other complaints included dizziness, deranged liver function or acute liver failure, sweating, palpitation, weakness, acute kidney injury or failure, numbness, headache, hypotension, difficulty in urination, blurred vision, chest discomfort, chills and rigors, fever, increased salivation and muscle cramping.

Among 46 patients, 44 sought medical attention and 29 required hospitalization. Seven were admitted to intensive care units and two required liver transplants. One death was recorded. It was a 57-year-old man with underlying illness in 2018.

Mushrooms behind the poisonings were most commonly picked from the countryside, hillsides and along roadsides. They were also foraged in parks and residential areas.

Among 30 cases, the incriminating types of mushrooms or toxins were identified 20 times. The two most common types of mushrooms identified were Chlorophyllum molybdites, which contain gastrointestinal toxins, and amatoxin-containing mushrooms. Other mushroom species contained gastrointestinal toxins, muscarine or both. Muscarine affects the smooth muscles and sweat glands.

To prevent wild mushroom poisoning, people should not pick them for consumption in any circumstance, according to the study.

“The identification of toxic mushrooms requires the expertise of mycologists. There is no reliable method for the general public to distinguish toxic mushrooms from non-toxic ones. In fact, the vast majority (about 90 percent) of the wild mushrooms in Hong Kong are inedible or poisonous.”

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