Four weeks ago, Lavinia Kelly stopped for a snack on her way home from work—she drizzled nacho cheese on some Doritos. Now she's in the hospital, bedridden and on a ventilator, using tape to hold her eyelids open.
Kelly, 33, has one of five confirmed cases of botulism picked up from Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in Sacramento, CA, according to the Sacramento Bee; there are three other probable cases and one suspected case—all nine patients are currently hospitalized.
The suspected culprit? That nacho cheese sauce. Botulism is a rare, but swift and serious illness, caused by multiplying Clostridium botulinum bacteria. Symptoms—vomiting, blurred vision, difficulty breathing, muscle weakness—typically take hold within 18 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food, as the bacteria release a nerve toxin that causes gradual paralysis and sometimes death.
Scary and rare? Yes. Unheard of? Not exactly. And we've only got ourselves to blame; botulism outbreaks are most often caused by human error, like using a half-assed approach to canning food.
That's what caused the biggest US botulism outbreak in 40 years back in 2015 when improperly canned potatoes served during a church potluck in Lancaster, Ohio, left one dead and sickened more than 20 others. Before that, 28 people in Peoria, Illinois, contracted the illness in 1983 after eating onions on patty-melt sandwiches; 34 people fell in in 1978 after eating potato (yep, again) or bean salad at a New Mexico restaurant; and 58 people were diagnosed with botulism in 1977 after eating home-canned peppers at a Michigan restaurant.
And those are just the biggest outbreaks that the US has seen. More recently in March, tea made from deer antlers (yes, really) infected two California residents with botulism, and 20 inmates at the Yazoo City Correctional Institution became ill after drinking homemade alcohol (AKA, "pruno"), made from a weeks-old baked potato (apparently C. botulinum spores are super common on root vegetables).
Basically, nothing is safe and the sooner humans can find a way to subsist without eating food, the better. Or, you know, just be more mindful of potlucks, potatoes, and, especially, gas station nachos.
Update 5/23/17: The California Department of Public Health has confirmed that the gas station cheese was contaminated with botulinum toxin. The CDPH says the cheese was removed from sale on May 5 and there's no ongoing risk to the public, but the outbreak has made 10 people sick, including Lavinia Kelly, and killed one of them. The San Francisco County coroner's office said the person who died was a 37-year-old man. Kelly's family is suing the Sacramento gas station for negligence, strict product liability, and breach of implied warranty.
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