Botulism is a rare but very dangerous form of food poisoning caused by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. As the Clostridium bacteria grow, they emit a powerful neurotoxin, or nerve toxin. This neurotoxin attacks the victim’s central nervous system, starting in the muscles of the eyes and the face. The first symptoms may be blurred vision, dry mouth and problems swallowing. The victim may complain of double vision and dizziness, and the eyelids may droop. The victim may also experience muscle weakness, and speech may be slurred. Babies and very young children will appear lethargic, flaccid, and be constipated. All of these symptoms reflect the process of the progressive muscle paralysis.
If treatment is not started, the paralysis progresses to the throat and chest, and then to arms and legs, the abdominal muscles and the muscles that regulate breathing. When the neurotoxin affects the diaphragm and other muscles of the chest, breathing is interfered with, and if the patient is not treated aggressively, he or she may die from asphyxiation.
One of the difficulties in treating botulism is up front. Botulism can be diagnosed by symptoms, but to rule out other possible diseases or sources of neurotoxins, a lab test must be done that requires injecting a sample of the patient’s blood or stool into a mouse; it takes 48 hours to determine whether the bacteria are growing in the mouse. If botulism is suspected, and diagnosis is prompt, treatment may focus on removing any remaining contaminated food by inducing vomiting or initiating enemas. Treatment also will involve an antitoxin, a substance that interferes with the action of the botulin toxin in the bloodstream. Antitoxin treatment can prevent the disease from progressing, but the patient may continue to experience the disabling symptoms for months. If the disorder has progressed to involvement of the respiratory muscles, the patient may require a ventilator to assist with breathing.
Spores of Clostridium bacteria are widely distributed in soil, both in the wild and in farmland, in lake and stream beds, and in animals, in the intestinal tracts of mammals and fish, and in the gills of crabs and shellfish. Despite its prevalence, Clostridium botulinum becomes a threat only when conditions are ripe for the spores to grow and produce their potent neurotoxin. Failure to bring food to sufficient temperature to kill spores, contaminated canning or preserving equipment, and uneviscerated fish (their guts left in when they’re canned) have all been implicated in botulism outbreaks
Many episodes of botulism result from home canning, especially of green beans, in which temperatures were not sufficiently high to kill all the spores. Sausage, baby foods, and canned foods such as smoked salmon spread, chili and beef stew have all been identified as the source of botulism poisoning. Any can that looks swollen is suspect and should not be used.
If you or a loved one have suffered the serious effects of botulism poisoning, and you believe that an improperly prepared food was the source of the poisoning, you should meet as soon as possible with an experienced food poisoning lawyer to see whether you have a claim. You should act as soon as possible, before evidence that could identify the source of the food is lost or destroyed.