Acute Toxicity of Phalloidins

[Editor’s Note: Debbie Viess is an Amanita expert from northern California]

Acute Toxicity of Phalloidins: Amatoxin’s Silent Partner

Debbie Viess “amanitarita”

Amanita_phalloides_01Most of us know about amatoxins and deadly amanita poisonings: a terrible way to die and not much fun even if you survive, but you have to actually EAT phalloides to be poisoned by amatoxins. What most people don’t know is that the deadly amanitas also contain an even more potent and deadly toxin: phalloidin. But this terrible toxin is made harmless as soon as it hits our gut: the acid and perhaps agitation in our bellies converts the phalloidin molecule to its harmless isomer: flipping it over to its mirror image. This switch to a harmless molecule doesn’t happen if you somehow absorb it through your skin rather than ingest it. I had a close encounter with phalloidins several years ago, while doing a Meixner test on phalloides spores, a fairly simple lab method of determining the presence of amatoxin. Although I was super cautious around the concentrated Hydrochloric Acid that is also required of a Meixner test, I was a bit more casual with my old, familiar, can’t-hurt-ya-if-ya-don’t-eat-it phalloides, and actually squeezed the juice out of my water-logged specimen bare-handed, thereby bathing my hands briefly in phalloides juice. Long before an hour had passed, I felt really awful. Not the typical delayed reaction vomit-y and cholera-like diarrhea awful (after all, my gut wasn’t involved in this poisoning), but terrible flu awful, aching all over, weak, etc. and took to my bed for the rest of the day and into that evening. I never had a fever, and it wasn’t the flu. I don’t believe that I had any breaks in my skin, either, but who knows? I was just hoping that I wasn’t about to die an ironic death. I could just see the headlines: “Amanita Expert Dies of Amanita Poisoning!!!” How embarrassing would that be?! Well, maybe not so much to me, if I was dead. I recovered without any obvious permanent damage, but I have no desire to repeat the experiment, nor would I encourage others to do so. It was painful! Next time, I’ll be using gloves. The ability of phalloidins to pass through the skin barrier is known, and is warned about in this online, industrial toxins site from Canada: BTW, I have handled plenty of phalloides in a more fleeting manner (but without bathing my hands in its juice), and have never had any sort of adverse effect. However, since the poisoning, I have become super sensitive to the smell of drying phalloides. I have sent a number of specimens from CA to the Pringle lab at Harvard, so they do sometimes get onto my drier. Smelling phalloides now makes my gorge rise, which I attribute to my own body wisdom telling me to “run for the hills!” Or at least take this deadly mushroom a bit more seriously. Word to the wise, Debbie Viess