A man’s food preservation hobby appears to have led to his death via botulism. This week, Washington State health officials reported that a Grays Harbour resident likely died from eating home-canned food that contained the bacterial toxin.
The man died over the weekend, according to a news release from the Grays Harbour County Public Health and Social Services Department. He’s said to have been aged 55 to 65, and his home was apparently filled with around “170 pint-sized jars of home-canned food and canning jars,” officials said, which were safely disposed of in accordance with guidelines from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Botulism is a life-threatening but rare illness caused by the botulinum toxin. The neurotoxin is produced by several species of Clostridium bacteria, though usually by its namesake, Clostridium botulinum. These bacteria are commonly found in the environment but aren’t typically a nuisance to humans, since they only produce the toxin in certain conditions when they’re in their spore form. These conditions include living in a low-oxygen, low-acid, low-sugar, and low-salt environment, at just the right temperature range and with enough water.
Unfortunately, improperly canned or preserved foods can meet all of these criteria, making them one of the few relatively common sources of botulism these days. According to the CDC, there were over 200 foodborne outbreaks of botulism reported in the U.S. between 1996 and 2014, with over half involving home-prepared foods; 30% of these cases were caused by home-canned vegetables.
Once the toxin is produced, it’s not always easy to tell, since it’s odourless and tasteless. Symptoms vary depending on how people are exposed to it, but the toxin paralyzes muscles, commonly leading to problems like difficulty breathing, muscle weakness, and slurred speech. Foodborne cases also tend to involve vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhoea, and symptoms usually occur within a day or two.
Pound for pound, botulinum is one of the most lethal toxins known to exist, and even a small taste of food containing it can be fatal. In the past, about half of all people with botulism died from it, usually from respiratory failure. But with modern medical care, including antitoxin treatment, it’s now estimated to kill fewer than 5% of people who contract it. Even with prompt treatment, though, sufferers can develop complications like weeks or months of paralysis and secondary infections, while survivors may require long-term rehabilitation to recover.
Of course, botulinum toxin has taken on a second life in recent decades. It’s most famously used cosmetically to temporarily paralyse people’s facial muscles and reduce wrinkles, under the brand name Botox. Other medical applications include treating urinary incontinence, chronic migraines, and various forms of spasm.
Officials say the man’s death from botulism still has to be confirmed through lab testing, but they’re already warning home-canning enthusiasts to stay aware and practice safe preservation techniques espoused by the CDC and others. “Using proper canning techniques, the right kind of equipment, and disposing of any canned foods that may not have been properly preserved is the best way to keep your home canned goods safe,” they said.
Signs of improper canning, both homemade and store-bought, can include bulging, leaking, or otherwise iffy-looking containers.