A man from California recently died from botulism after eating tainted nacho cheese sauce from a gas station. Find out everything you need to know about botulism today.
What Is Botulism?
Botulism is a type of food poisoning that can lead to paralysis, difficulty breathing, and sometimes death. You get botulism when you ingest a toxin called the botulinum toxin.
One food safety specialist interviewed by LiveScience.com claimed that botulism “Is one of the scariest foodborne illnesses that we have.”
Botulism is particularly scary because it blocks nerve messages. This, in turn, causes people to lose control of their muscles. That’s why some of the first symptoms of botulism include trouble swallowing, droopy eyelids, and difficulty breathing.
Botulism has been in the news this past week after 10 people received the toxin after eating tainted nacho cheese from a gas station in Sacramento. One of those 10 people later died.
Is Botulism Treatable?
When botulism is diagnosed quickly, doctors can give patients a botulinum antitoxin, which inhibits the actions of the toxin in your bloodstream. However, if the antitoxin isn’t administered immediately, the neurotoxin can cause muscle paralysis – a symptom that can take weeks or, in some cases, years to reverse.
The process of removing the botulinum toxin from your body is “long and horrible”, explains the same researcher cited above. Some people never recover from it:
“Some people never recover from it. I’ve seen cases of people, years later, still walking with a cane having problems with speech.”
Approximately 1 in 20, or 5%, of botulism cases are fatal.
Symptoms Of Botulism
Here are some of the major symptoms of botulism:
- Difficulty breathing
- Droopy eyelids
- Trouble swallowing
- Muscle weakness
- Blurred or double vision
- Dry mouth
- Slurred speech
Botox and Botulism Are Linked
One of the unique things about botulism is that it’s linked to beneficial cosmetic treatments.
Specifically, the paralyzing protein that causes botulism is used in Botox. Botox relaxes a person’s facial wrinkles and immobilizes muscles in a small area when injected. This makes it a desirable anti-aging treatment.
Because the protein is isolated from the rest of the toxin, Botox is a perfectly safe procedure. It’s virtually unheard of to get botulism from a Botox procedure – although it has occurred in extraordinarily rare cases.
When Was Botulism Discovered?
Botulism has plagued humans for as long as we’ve been eating food. However, the first documented case of botulism occurred in 1820. That case was caused by contaminated sausages. At the time, researchers named the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, and they named the disease botulism.
The name “botulism”, funnily enough, comes from the Latin word for sausage: botulus.
How Does Food Become Infected with Botulism?
C. botulinum is commonly found in soil. In fact, if you check your garden, there’s a good chance you’ll find C. botulinum. When the bacteria is exposed to oxygen, it protects itself by turning into a spore. Those spores do not make people sick on their own.
C. botulinum only becomes a neurotoxin when it enters an oxygen-free environment. At this point, it emerges from a spore and becomes a cell.
How does C. botulinum enter an oxygen free environment? Canned or packaged food is often the culprit. Food is processed, then placed into an airtight container.
In the California case that just occurred, officials believe the cheese sauce was in a dispenser bag without any oxygen inside.
Ultimately, foodborne botulism is rare. Between 1996 and 2014, there were just 210 outbreaks of botulism reported in the United States.
Numbers shot up in 2015 when more than 25 people were infected with botulism at a church potluck in Ohio. That outbreak was traced back to eating potato salad that was made from home-canned potatoes.
Specifically, the person who canned the potatoes used a boiling water canner instead of a pressure canner. A pressure canner eliminates spores, while a boiling water caner does not kill the toxin. The individual also did not heat the potatoes after they were removed from the can – which can often neutralize the botulinum toxin.
Most botulism cases are traced back to home canning methods. People who can at home should be particularly cautious about botulism.
How To Avoid Botulism
As mentioned above, botulism cases are rare. However, you can take a number of precautions to make botulism cases even rarer:
- Properly cooking, cleaning, and chilling food
- Avoiding canned food with bulges or cracks
- Remember that food contaminated by botulism can look and smell normal, and you can’t always tell by looking at it
- Place high-acid foods (plums or rhubarb) in a boiling water bath
- Can low acid foods (most vegetables, meats, and seafood) at a higher temperature using a pressure canner
Ultimately, improper home canning creates the perfect environment to grow botulism bacteria. By taking certain precautions, you can substantially reduce your risk of botulism.
Botulism Outbreak In California
This past week, 37-year old Sacramento man Martin Galindo-Larios Jr. died of botulism after ingesting tainted nacho cheese from a gas station in the local suburb of Walnut Grove.
California health officials claim that Martin was one of at least 10 people sickened after eating nacho cheese dip from that same gas station. All 10 of those people were hospitalized. No further updates are available for the 9 surviving victims.
Officials added that the container of tainted cheese dip was removed on May 5, and authorities believe the contamination poses no further risk to the public.
Botulism is one of the worst foodborne illnesses. Thankfully, it’s also very rare. By taking the precautions listed above, you can reduce your risk of botulism even further.