Botulism, as an accidental illness, is rare these days. More sophisticated canning processes and better preservation of food products have prevented this serious neurotoxin from poisoning those in the modern world.
Intentional poisonings, however, are another story. The botulism toxin (called botulinum) is one of the most poisonous substances known to man. It is said to be 10,000 times more deadly than cyanide, and it’s been estimated that a lethal human dose is in the range of two nanograms. That translates to two billionths of a gram (think of a paperclip as weighing one gram). Therefore, deadly doses are not even visible to the naked eye.
There are seven types of botulism, but only three MAIN types. These are:
Food-Borne Botulism – This type of illness usually exhibits symptoms within four to 36 hours after ingesting a contaminated food product. The symptoms include dry mouth, difficulty speaking and swallowing, weakness of the facial muscles, blurred or double vision, drooping eyelids, as well as nausea and vomiting. Eventual respiratory shutdown and general muscle paralysis are the usual the causes of death. It’s good practice NOT to taste test food that may have gone bad.
Wound Botulism – This from of the disease is usually seen with those who inject drugs several times a day, as with people who use heroin. The symptoms and eventual lethal outcome are similar to food-borne botulism.
Infant Botulism – Babies who consume the spores of the bacteria will develop this form of the disease. The spores grow in infant intestines and release the neurotoxin. Honey can contain botulism spores and this is often a source of the disease for infants. Honey should not be fed to babies less than one year of age.
The botulism neurotoxin is produced mainly by Clostridium botulinum bacterium. The neurotoxin is so lethal that it is listed as a potential biological weapon by the United States Department of Defense. Deliberate food-borne botulism has the potential to poison many of the population and is considered a public health risk.
Food-borne botulism is the form often used as a murder weapon and which has the potential to be used as a bio-weapon. The cause of death is usually from suffocation due to respiratory muscle paralysis.
In 2001, a civilian bio-defense group issued a consensus statement regarding the dangers of botulism. The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) has classified this toxin as a Category A Agent because of its potential as a biological agent and the fact that it can be used as either an aerosolized or food-borne weapon.
Botulinum spores are extremely hardy entities. They survive boiling temperatures for over three hours. They are resistant to ultra violet light, irradiation and alcohols. These spores are said to survive in the dry state for over 30 years and can be reactivated by heating them, so storage for future weapon use is not a problem.
The good news is that the spores may be killed by chlorine disinfectants. And about two years ago the FDA approved a botulism antitoxin drug, which is said to neutralize all seven known forms of the disease.
Survival depends on early initiation of treatment with the antitoxin, supportive medical care (such as breathing machine support and stomach pumping) and appropriate antibiotic use. But the recovery process can be lengthy, with assisted ventilation continuing for weeks and even months after the initial symptoms occur.
However, this same neurotoxin, when prepared in dilute concentrations, is used commercially to treat medical and cosmetic conditions. It amazes me, and even boggles my mind, that a substance with such destructive potential can be harnessed and used in beneficial ways.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
I’ve always been fascinated by botulinum toxin. Such a clean mechanism of action–it blocks release of acetylcholine from nerve terminals–it’s been useful in a wide range of basic science studies of nerve signaling.
It’s worth noting that it is impossible to tell if a canned food is contaminated with botox without sending it to a laboratory. But heating the food to boiling for a few minutes will destroy any botox that might be there. Unlike the bacteria’s spores, which survive boiling, the toxin itself is heat labile.