Thin white mushrooms appeared in a patch of Sarah Hunter’s front yard in western Massachusetts last May, after days of rain. One afternoon, Hunter’s wife ran home looking terrified. I found their 5-year-old son sitting in the yard with a morsel of fungus, which I immediately picked up from his mouth. Unsure if he had eaten any – and what that would mean if he did – Hunter called Poison Control and was given a public email address where they could send sample photos. They were told that a response could take hours.
“It’s pretty scary,” Hunter later told Vox. “I have a child with special needs. Everything seems a little more serious with him.” They were thinking, “Do we need to go to the emergency room?”
Over time, Hunter decided to check out a public Facebook group recommended by a friend. The rapidly growing global community, which is called Poison Aid; Mushrooms and Plants Emergency Identification helps people identify fungi and plants and assess the risks of poisoning when someone (or often a pet) ingests or comes into contact with a species of suspected or unknown toxicity.
Poison Help does not provide professional medical advice, and a disclaimer notes. But group managers and members say crowdsourcing efforts often lead to positive selections. This information can help guide group members when to speak with medical experts — or wait for a response from them — to determine if treatment or emergency services are needed.
According to the National Poison Data System, approximately 7,500 known cases of fungal are reported by phone in an average year in the United States. But while there are online databases of toxic substances and portable identification apps, identifying plants and mushrooms over the phone is particularly difficult due to the site-specific nature of some species, not to mention the challenge of trying to describe them verbally. . Worldwide, there are an estimated 148,000 known fungal species and more than 20,000 ingestible plant species, with many yet to be identified.
In an emergency, a poison control center and doctor should be the first to contact someone. Calls to 1-800-222-1222 — the national poison control number, which handles two million calls annually — are diverted by area code to one of the more than 50 regional centers in the U.S. Poison Control Network.
“Most people who come in contact with us will have some idea of what they have been exposed to,” said Kelly Johnson Arbor, MD, medical director at the National Poison Center in Washington, D.C. But in general, “it can be really hard to identify plants.”
Poisons Help bridges this gap, forming a lifeline in situations that can turn stalemate and offering life-saving advice at a time when many people are dealing with more types of plants and fungi than they are used to. Regardless of Facebook’s (very big) issues, Poisons Help is an example of a community that really helps build a new, accessible knowledge base that’s much more convenient than bringing a plant or mushroom sample to an expert in person to learn about it.
The group is not without its growing pains and internal tensions, but some experts say it’s an alternative model for the future of phytotoxin control.
How did the group take root?
Poison Help was founded in 2018 when a few mycologists who knew each other from other mycology-focused Facebook groups got together to deal with the most pressing cases of potential poisoning. Global membership has grown by nearly 40,000 members since last summer, from 60,000 to over 100,000, and the group regularly publishes hundreds of posts per month. Members include non-medical people as well as veterinarians, nurse practitioners, and other health professionals.
“I was shocked at how quickly I was able to get responses to my posts, and [that I got] Veterinary technologist Kelsey Carpenter, who often recommends the group to people at the California clinic where she works, said. I recently posted on the page for the first time when a family dog ate a mushroom, it turned out to be harmless. (Ninety-nine percent of mushrooms have little or no toxicity, according to the North American Mycological Society, but 1 percent are highly toxic and can lead to life-threatening complications for pets.)
“It is more difficult than ever to get veterinary care,” Carpenter said, noting the current shortage of veterinarians and technicians. “A resource like this identification set becomes much more important.”
Users are asked to provide information on geographic location, symptoms of the animal (or person), time since ingestion, as well as pictures of the plant or mushroom in question. In Hunter’s case, they took a picture of the white mushroom that had poked their son on their phone and posted it with their message. “any ideas?” they asked.
Almost immediately, officials began to respond.
“This looks like a cuprenoid to me,” one said, referring to a worldwide non-poisonous mushroom known for its shaggy white blade.
“They also look like cuprenoid to me,” another official added.
“OK, cuprenoid,” a third rang in.
The group includes more than 200 officials who have proven track records in identifying plants and mushrooms, according to one of the group’s founders, Keri Woodfield, who is based in Cornwall in the UK. Some were recruited for participating in an unofficial identification elsewhere on the social network, and officials are supposed to only comment on cases until they are closed. “You’re not allowed to participate if you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hunter said. “It’s like the opposite of the internet.”
All administrators are volunteers with day jobs who dedicate their free time to the group. “The primary job is to make sure we get the best and most accurate identification of panicked people as possible,” Woodfield said.
Many administrators are “on call” to receive notifications of all new posts, and begin identification efforts in seconds. Even when I was outside on a busy street, I would literally stop and step aside” to participate, said group official Octrin Miko, who is based in the Philippines.
For more difficult cases, conversations may go to the admin group only. Spike Mikulsky, a Rhode Island official and expert on the amanita family of fungi, many of which can be hallucinogenic or sometimes poisonous in doses depending on human or animal size. “If I’m at work or if I’m sleeping, someone else will be there.”
Positively identifying the sample can be difficult even with pictures, so officials may go back to the original label to ask to cut it in half or to order a picture of a different part of the sample. This unanimous identifier, whether it’s a rare mushroom or a common roadside plant, many members say provides a uniquely reassuring atmosphere for the group.
Cases are considered “closed” once a positive identifier is provided, at which point non-responsible persons are allowed to comment. After cases end safely, a supervisor regularly prescribes the ultimate medicine: a bowl of ice cream.
‘There was a lot of exhaustion’
But behind the scenes, the group is struggling with its decentralized structure and the difficulties of surviving on social media platforms.
Strong personalities among some group officials have been known to conflict in their side conversations, which can lead to some people avoiding altogether. Woodfield sometimes has to step in to calm the situation.
Officials say another pain point is when new members ignore deployment guidelines or try to circumvent emergency requirements by “developing” stories to include ingestion when there was none already. They may do this because they know the group’s reputation for quick responses, while it may take longer in other identity groups. Moreover, officials are concerned about the limitations of the platform itself and fear that it will be shut down. There are inherent problems with relying on social media for a start, such as a lack of recognition by the medical establishment as a reliable source of information. “The challenge is the perceived legitimacy and legitimacy,” said supervisor Aishu Dowlut, a UK-based dentist and enthusiast of the plant and fungi.
Alex Todzharovsky, one of the group’s founders based in Sweden, said the group’s day-to-day operations could be greatly improved if Facebook allowed comments by non-administrative members to be turned off while the case was still open. There have also been times when posts have been wrongly flagged by Facebook’s algorithm as inappropriate content, said Todzarovsky, who fears the group will be automatically closed at a certain number.
When asked about restricting who can comment on posts, a Facebook representative pointed out to Vox some of the tools the company has offered to group moderators, such as the ability to limit comments on posts and limit the participation of a specific member. The representative has not commented on posts that Poisons Help members say have been wrongly flagged as inappropriate.
Several officials who spoke to Vox also mentioned experiencing something many of us can relate to these days: burnout. They are unpaid volunteers, after all, and their role can become an all-consuming stream of causes. “There was a lot of exhaustion, especially from the endless number of dog posts,” Woodfield said. The group attempted to reject some, she says, on the grounds that “this is not an emergency of being near mushrooms.” Then the members simply retweet saying, “My dog definitely ate this.”
But the concern for biodiversity is what keeps many officials coming back. “I kind of enjoy the randomness, I never know what’s going to happen, and I’m excited about some new puzzles,” said Debbie Weiss, a California-based mycotoxin consultant. “It’s like being a detective. Sometimes you have a little bit of data and you put it together.”
The future of plant poison control
In a few cases, the group provided identifying information that was subsequently rejected by the health care professional. But Johnson-Arbor of the National Capital Poison Center says it will consider any information the group provides in addition to its own research. The Poison Group has democratized information and provided a valuable service to people around the world.
Mary Mitzi runs an animal rescue operation in Alabama and has used information from the group to save lives on multiple occasions. Before joining, she said, there were a lot of frantic Google Image searches and 3 a.m. trips to the emergency vet. Without the group, she said, “I would have had a panic attack.”
Administrators considered exiting the platform, either to an app or elsewhere. But that means giving up on the ease of use and global presence of Facebook. Nor are they interested in monetizing what they do, fearing that it would conflict with what the group stands for.
Experts at poison centers are also considering ways to adapt. “A lot of young people in the population don’t like contact,” Johnson-Arbor said. “They don’t want to wait, or would rather get their answers online.” You imagine they will have to develop new ways to serve an online audience, such as the ability to have a text chat on a website, similar to an online tool for toxic household items. Johnson-Arbor usually recommends that people bring the plants to their local nursery for identification, although she does call a local mycologist to help identify the fungus. The Mycological Society of North America also maintains a directory of mycologists available for consultation.
In Hunter’s case, they finally got a reply to their email that the mushrooms were indeed non-toxic – only later that evening. By that time they already knew a lot. Hunter said that within half a minute of posting on Poison helped the photo of the mushroom their son had entered, five managers had recognized it. The family had nothing to worry about.
“A consensus of harmless cuprinoids,” said one of the moderators, as if hitting the hammer. Along with the ID, they added a smile emoji and an image of Kirby, the ’90s-era video game character who was known for opening wide and sniffing just about everything. In the photo, Kirby holds a banner that reads: Case closed!
“Great relief,” Hunter said.