Foraging for wild food is becoming a popular activity but gathering wild mushrooms can be life-threatening.
The poison in one deathcap mushroom, if eaten, is enough to kill a healthy adult. In 2012 two people died after eating the deadly mushrooms at a New Year’s Eve dinner party in Canberra and in 2014 four people also in the ACT were seriously poisoned.
Deathcap mushrooms can appear any time of year but are usually more common during Autumn a week or two after good rains. However, during a wet summer l, fruiting has occurred much earlier with reports of them in the ACT and Adelaide Hills region since Christmas.
They have been found in the Canberra region, in and around Melbourne, in Tasmania and in the Adelaide region. They are not native to Australia and are found near oak, hazel or chestnut trees. The similar native marbled deathcap mushrooms have been found in WA in eucalypt forest, although they may not be as toxic. While no cases have been reported in other States it is possible that they also grow there.
Deathcap mushrooms are difficult to distinguish from some other wild mushrooms so we recommend you play it safe and only eat mushrooms that you have purchased from a supermarket, greengrocer or other reputable source. People from overseas, especially in Asian countries, should be aware that these deadly mushrooms can look like edible mushrooms they may have gathered in their home countries.
The toxin in deathcap mushrooms is not destroyed by peeling, cooking or drying. Symptoms of poisoning include vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps and usually appear six to 24 hours after eating. These symptoms may ease for 2 to 3 days before a terminal phase of 3 to 4 days begins. Without early, effective medical intervention people may go into a coma and die after 2 or 3 weeks of liver and kidney failure.
While rare, most of the deaths from mushroom poisoning in Australia result from deathcap mushrooms. However, there are other wild mushrooms in Australia that have caused fatalities or can make you seriously ill with abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. These include various Cortinarius (webcap) and Galerina species, the ghost mushroom (commonly mistaken for oyster mushrooms), and the yellow stainer which resembles a field mushroom and is the most commonly ingested poisonous mushroom in Victoria and New South Wales.
The NSW Poisons Information Centre, which receives enquiries from NSW, the ACT and Tasmania as well as afterhours enquiries for all of Australia, received 549 calls during 2020 regarding exposures to mushrooms with another 133 recalls about these cases. 23% of calls were intentional recreational or foraging exposures in adults.
More than a third of these calls were accidental exposure in children under 5 years, so remember that small children have a natural inclination to put things in their mouths so keep an eye on them when outdoors. Parents, schools and childcare workers should regularly check outdoor areas and gardens for mushrooms and remove them to reduce the risk of accidental poisoning. This will also protect your pets.
If you suspect you may have eaten a deathcap mushroom don’t wait for symptoms to occur but go to a hospital emergency department taking the mushroom in a container (and washing hands after handling) with you if you can. You can also contact the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 (24 hours a day 7 days a week).
Finally, a reminder that if you grow your own mushrooms at home do not collect spore from the wild but use a reputable mushroom growing kit, follow the instructions and especially make sure the growing medium is sterilised. This will make sure you do not accidentally grow poisonous mushrooms. Also, like all fresh produce make sure your home grown and shop bought mushrooms are handled hygienically with well washed hands and utensils to avoid the risk of food poisoning.
If you have concerns about possible wild mushroom poisoning contact the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26
ACT Health: If you think you see any possible Deathcap mushrooms growing in Canberra do not touch but report them contact Access Canberra on 13 22 81 see more information
Queensland see more information
Better Health Channel (Victorian Government) see more information
Australian National Botanic Gardens see more information
WA Health: see more information
Tasmania more information
Pets – Australian Animals Poisons Centre (AAPC) 1300 TOX PET (AU)