Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Officials: Weed turned potato stew into poison

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The botanist who last week identified a plant near a Gaithersburg family’s garden as a toxic weed, said the six people admitted to the hospital after unknowingly eating it are ‘‘lucky” to be alive.

Jimsonweed was mixed into a homemade potato stew the six ate at a family dinner on July 8, a Montgomery County health department spokeswoman said. An elderly family member made the stew using plants from the family herb garden. Twelve people attended the dinner, and the six people who ate the stew got sick.

County fire and rescue officials initially reported that the sick may have been poisoned by mint leaves tainted with pesticides.

That changed Thursday after two experts from the county’s disease control program and a botanist went to the family’s townhome in the Montgomery Meadows Townhouses on the 1000 block of Travis Lane, off Watkins Mill Road, said Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s department of Health and Human Services. They found recently cut jimsonweed near the garden, which surprised the botanist, who said the plant is usually found on farmland and in fields, Anderson said.

Then the experts went inside.

‘‘In the trash can were not only potato peels but more clippings of jimsonweed and they thought ‘A-ha!’” Anderson said.

Jimsonweed contains belladonna alkaloids atropine and scopolamine, ingredients that may cause symptoms such as: mental confusion, agitation, rapid heart rate, incoherent speech, impaired coordination, dry, flushed or hot skin, visual or auditory hallucinations or cardiac arrest, Anderson said.

Satnam Singh, a relative who lives next door, said his 18-year-old son attended the dinner. The six who ate the stew began hallucinating one half-hour after eating the stew, he said.

‘‘They were acting wild and everything, like hallucinating, they didn’t know what they were saying, what they were doing, talking all kind of nonsense,” Singh said. ‘‘The ones who didn’t eat, like the kids, noticed.”

His son described his sick relatives, who ranged in age from 20 to 70 years old as behaving ‘‘like when you’re high on pot,” he said. He noticed that ‘‘they were not breathing properly” and called a friend to the home who called the ambulance, Singh said.

Family members returned home in one to three days, his wife Kamajit Kaur said Tuesday.

‘‘Everyone is better, everybody is fine, everybody is perfect...” she said. ‘‘No medications, no treatment — they said ‘Just take a rest,’ then go see the primary doctor and that’s it.”

The episode ‘‘potentially could have been fatal,” said Chuck Schuster, the Maryland Cooperative Extension botanist who identified the plant. ‘‘We’re really lucky.”

Jimsonweed is a ‘‘typically a waste area weed, not a garden weed,” Schuster said. It was not planted in the family yard. The surrounding area where the plant was growing was ‘‘rough” and unmowed. Birds or dirt from recent construction could have brought the plant to the neighborhood, he said.

Normal lawn care such as mowing and use of weed killer typically stops the plant’s spread, Schuster said.

The family affected has since removed all plants from the herb garden ‘‘to be on the safe side,” Anderson said.

‘‘We did not know it was even there,” Singh said Tuesday. Family members ‘‘thought it was just like a spinach-type of a plant, something like that.”

Anderson said that jimsonweed does not resemble mint. Instead, the weed, also known as ‘‘Downy thornapple” and ‘‘Devil’s trumpet” can grow to 5 feet tall and has ‘‘coarsely serrated” 3- to 8-inch leaves according to www.ansci.cornell.edu⁄plants, a Web site that contains the Cornell University poisonous plants database.

‘‘You really have to be careful,” she said. When it comes to eating homegrown herbs, ‘‘don’t eat anything that you haven’t planted yourself and know exactly what it is.”