Wet, mild weather brings abundance of fungi – but picking them requires expert knowledge
Elias Visontay – The Guardian
Health authorities across the country are urging Australians not to eat wild mushrooms as favourable growing conditions and coronavirus lockdowns lead to a rise in people attending hospital after eating potentially deadly fungi.
Poison information line experts are reporting their busiest period in decades, including inquiries from perplexed emergency room doctors, with Victorian authorities recording eight hospital admissions among foragers who have ingested toxic mushrooms in the past two weeks.
On Wednesday the Victorian deputy chief health officer, Angie Bone, held a press conference to discuss the alarming trend, warning: “Unless you are an expert, do not pick and eat wild mushrooms in Victoria.”
Wet and mild weather had brought an abundance of mushrooms, she said, adding: “There have been more people out and about in local parks and streets, taking exercise during the coronavirus restrictions.
“Death can follow within 48 hours from serious liver damage. The death cap is extremely toxic and responsible for 90% of all mushroom poisoning deaths.”
Calls to the Victorian poisons information centre with illness after eating mushrooms have doubled.
The Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria mycologist Tom May provides advice to the poisons information centre, and said demand for his expertise had surged: “I don’t think I’ve ever been as busy as this year, in several decades of doing this job.”
May told Guardian Australia that many toxic mushrooms, including the death cap and yellow-staining fungi, closely resembled common varieties sold in supermarkets and were difficult for untrained foragers to identify.
The mushroom season typically occurred in autumn in Australia, he said, and while it ran from April to June in southern states, it could start just after Christmas further north.
“This is a bumper season,” he said. “Unless you’re prepared to become an expert in mushroom identifying, then eating mushrooms you pick is not something to be done.
“The death caps are an exotic fungus introduced with oak trees so, really, wherever there’s oak trees there’s death caps. And the yellow-stainers – they look exactly the same as a button mushroom.”
Yellow-stainers mostly caused gastroenteritis, he said, as opposed to the fatal death cap which attacks vital organ function.
According to Victoria’s health department, the death cap is a large mushroom, with a cap ranging from light olive green to greenish yellow in colour. The gills are white, and the base of the stem is surrounded by a cup-shaped sac.
New South Wales authorities are also concerned, with the state’s poison information centre compiling updated advice to be released later this week.
In South Australia the poisons information hotline has also received an increasing number of calls, with about two-thirds of all of them related to children aged under five. Five of them were referred to hospital.
The SA health department’s scientific services branch director, David Simon, said: “It’s especially important to keep an eye on children and pets outside as mushrooms are easily in reach and can look interesting and attractive to eat.
“We need to look out for each other and keep each other safe and out of hospital, particularly right now in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and with flu season just around the corner.”
Signs of mushroom poisoning include violent stomach cramps, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
- AAP contributed to this report