After a rainy summer, Australia is seeing an increase in the growth of wild mushrooms across the nation. This has prompted the Food Safety Information Council (FSIC) to issue a warning for people to take extra care around the mushrooms, as there is a risk of picking and consuming the extremely poisonous death cap mushroom.

This risk is not to be taken lightly, as it is very easy to confuse the death cap mushroom with edible mushroom types and eat it by accident.

What has been said?

The Chair of the Council, Cathy Moir, has highlighted the popular activity of foraging in the autumn. She warns that collecting wild mushrooms can put lives at risk. The poison contained in a single death cap mushroom is enough to be fatal for a healthy adult who consumes it. There were two deaths in 2012 when people accidentally ate the dangerous mushrooms in Canberra, while 2014 saw four people suffer serious poisoning from the mushroom.

What are death cap mushrooms?

These innocuous mushrooms can grow all year round but are particularly prominent during the autumn following rainfall. There have been reports of them around Canberra, Tasmania, Melbourne and Adelaide, even though they are not a natural Australian mushroom. You will often find them close to oak trees when there is warm, wet weather. A slightly less toxic version, the marbled death cap mushroom, has been identified in WA, and although other states have not yet reported any discoveries, there is still a chance that they grow elsewhere.

Deathcap mushrooms are easily confused with other harmless wild mushrooms, so it is safest to stick to buying mushrooms from a reputable source like a supermarket or greengrocer. People who have come to Australia from overseas, particularly Asian countries, should bear in mind that death cap mushrooms strongly resemble edible mushrooms that they may have eaten when in their home country.

The danger of death cap mushrooms

The toxin that is present in the death cap mushroom cannot be destroyed by drying them, or by peeling and cooking. Common symptoms that a person has been poisoned include vomiting, severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, which usually occur around 10-16 hours after eating the mushroom. These symptoms may appear to subside for 2-3 days before entering a terminal phase of 3-4 days.

People should seek early, effective treatment for these symptoms or risk falling into a coma and eventually dying after 2-3 weeks of kidney and liver failure.

Though the mushroom is not common, most of the fatalities in Australia from mushroom poisoning are a consequence of eating death cap mushrooms. Having said that, other wild mushrooms exist in the country that can be fatal or cause serious illness with similar symptoms to death cap mushroom poisoning. These mushrooms include:

  • Cortinarius (webcap)
  • Galerina
  • Ghost mushrooms (often confused with oyster mushrooms)
  • Yellow stainer mushrooms (these look like field mushrooms and are the poisonous mushroom that is most frequently ingested in New South Wales and Victoria)

A significant risk

The NSW Poisons Information Centre serves the areas of NSW, Tasmania and the ACT, as well as after-hours calls nationwide. Through 2020, the centre received 549 calls relating to exposure to poisonous mushrooms, as well as 133 recalls about those cases. Around 23% of those calls were either foraging exposures or intentional recreational use in adults.

However, more than 33% of those calls involved accidental ingestion in children aged 0-4 years. It is important to remember that young children are very curious and tend to put things in their mouths. Parents are advised to watch their children closely when they play outdoors. Schools, childcare workers and parents should all be checking their outdoors areas regularly for mushrooms, removing any they see to avoid accidental poisoning occurring. Pets will also be protected by this precaution.

What to do in an emergency

If you believe you might have ingested a death cap mushroom, the advice is to act immediately – do not wait until symptoms begin. Go straight to a hospital emergency department as soon after consuming the mushroom as possible. You can also get in touch with the Poisons Information Centre 24/7 on 13 11 26.

The threat posed by poisonous mushrooms is an ongoing food safety issue, but it has come to the fore because of the wet weather in the summer. Mushrooms thrive in warm, wet conditions, so there will be a temptation to take advantage of the opportunity to forage for your kitchens. You are strongly advised to avoid doing this to ensure you do not accidentally poison yourself and your loved ones. Stick to eating mushrooms purchased from a trusted retailer.