ACT News

License article

'It's just so tragic'

Canberra's Chinese community is in mourning, with two people dead from suspected liver failure and another in a critical condition after toxic death cap mushrooms were served at a New Year's Eve party.

A 52-year-old woman and a 38-year-old man were flown from Canberra's Calvary Hospital to Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in a critical condition on Monday afternoon.

The pair died overnight on Tuesday from suspected liver failure, as they waited in vain for liver transplants.

Another member of the group, a 51-year-old man, had driven himself to Sydney's Manly Hospital before being rushed to RPA in a critical condition.

He remained in hospital last night, listed as critical but stable.

Just one member of the group, a man believed to be in his 30s, escaped relatively unscathed, being discharged from Canberra Hospital on Tuesday afternoon.


ACT Health director of emergency Michael Hall said authorities believed the man would not suffer any long-term health effects from his ordeal.

''We believe that he had a much smaller serve of a mushroom-prepared meal,'' Dr Hall said.

Chinese media is reporting the group were Chinese nationals.

ACT Chinese-Australian Association patron Sam Wong said death caps looked almost identical to traditional Chinese mushrooms.

''We were taught when we were young not to eat anything colourful or with spots on it,'' Mr Wong said.

''But eating mushrooms on New Year's Eve and dying, I've never heard anything so awful. It's just so tragic.''

He believed the four victims were members of the same family, with at least one member a Canberra resident.

The mushrooms picked for the fateful New Year's Eve meal were believed to have been found in Braddon.

Death caps, commonly found near established oak trees in the ACT, are among the world's most deadly mushrooms.

Mushroom expert, National Botanic Gardens honorary scientific associate Heino Lepp, said even experts sometimes struggled to tell death caps from edible mushrooms.

Death cap mushrooms look strikingly similar to edible straw mushrooms, often used in Asian cooking.

Mr Lepp said there were many places in Canberra where the two mushroom varieties grew side by side, and urged people not to pick mushrooms from the wild.

Mature death caps, according to the National Botanic Gardens, have a smooth, yellow-green to olive-brown cap, white gills beneath the cap and a white stem, a membranous ''skirt'' on the stem and a cup-like structure around the base of the stem.

As they mature, the cap flattens from a conical shape to an almost horizontal shape.

The mushrooms contain the deadly amatoxin, which Mr Lepp said stops cells from repairing themselves. The first organ to suffer irreversible damage is the liver.

The two deaths bring the number of fatalities in the ACT in the past decade from the poisonous mushrooms to five.

ACT Health says about a dozen more people have suffered poisoning but have avoided death in the same period.

Dr Hall said the fatality rate for people who ate death cap mushrooms was between 25 per cent and 50 per cent. Mr Wong will meet with acting ACT chief health officer Andrew Pengilley to thrash out plans for a multilingual information campaign targeting ethnic minorities to warn of the dangers of death cap mushrooms.

Mr Wong said such a campaign could include information stalls at the Multicultural Festival.

with Stephanie Anderson