The thin, white mushrooms emerged last May from a patch in the front yard of Sarah Hunter in western Massachusetts after days of rain. One afternoon, Hunter’s wife panicked and ran home. He saw their 5-year-old son sitting in the yard with a mouthful of fungus, which he immediately pulled out of his mouth. Uncertain if he had received any – and what it would mean if he did – Hunter dialed Poison Control and was given a simple email address where they could send pictures of the sample. A response, they were told, could take hours.
“It’s very scary,” Hunter later told Vox. “I have a baby with special needs. Everything with him seems a little more dangerous. “They thought,” Do we have to go to the ER? “
With the minute ticking, Hunter decided to check out a public Facebook group suggested by a friend. The fast-growing world community, called Poison Help; Emergency detection for mushrooms and plants helps people to identify fungi and plants and assess the risk of poisoning when someone (or, more often, a pet) comes in contact with a suspicious or unknown poisonous species.
Poison help does not give professional medical advice, a disclaimer note. But group administrators and members say crowdsourcing efforts often do not lead to positive identification. And this information can help guide group members when talking to medical professionals to determine if they need treatment or emergency services – or while waiting to hear back from them.
According to the National Poison Data System, an average of about 7,500 known fungal infections are reported by phone each year in the United States. But despite the existence of an online database of toxins and a mobile identification app, the identification of plants and mushrooms on the phone is particularly difficult due to the location-specific nature of specific species, not to mention the challenge of trying to describe them verbally. . Worldwide, there are approximately 148,000 known fungal species and more than 20,000 species of inedible plants, many more yet to be identified.
In an emergency, a poison control center and a doctor should be the first contact. Call 1-800-222-1222 – National Poison Control Number, which handles 2 million calls annually – is transmitted by area code to more than 50 regional centers on the U.S. Poison Control Network.
Kelly Johnson-Arber, medical director of the National Capital Poison Center in Washington, D.C., said, “Most people who contact us will have some idea of what they’ve come in contact with.” But overall, “plants can be really hard to identify.”
The Poison Help Group works to bridge that gap, creating a lifeline in situations that can be catastrophic, and providing potential life-saving advice at a time when many people are exposed to more species and fungi than they are accustomed to. Aside from Facebook’s (very big) problems, Poisons Help is an example of a community that is actually helping to build an accessible new knowledge base that is far more convenient than bringing a plant or mushroom specimen to an expert for identification.
The group is not without its growing pains and internal tensions, but some experts say it is an alternative model for the future of plant poison control.
How the group took root
Poison Help was founded in 2018 when some fungus experts who know each other from other mycology-centric Facebook groups came together to handle potential emergencies of possible poisoning. Global membership has grown by nearly 40,000 members since last summer, from 60,000 to over 100,000, and the group regularly posts hundreds of posts each 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 feedback on my posts, and that [that I got] Really confident identification, “said Kelsey Carpenter, a veterinary technician who often recommends the team to people at the California clinic where she works. He recently posted on the page for the first time when a family dog ate a mushroom, which proved to be harmless. (Ninety-nine percent of mushrooms have little or no toxicity, according to the North American Mycological Association, but 1 percent that are highly toxic can cause life-threatening complications for pets.)
“Veterinary care is harder than ever,” Carpenter said, adding that current veterinarians and technicians point to shortages. “A resource like this identification group becomes much more critical.”
Users are asked to provide information including geographical location, pet (or person) symptoms, and time after eating, with photos of the plant or mushroom in question. In Hunter’s case, they took a picture of their son popping a white mushroom with their phone and posted it with their message. “Any ideas?” They asked.
Almost immediately the admins started responding.
“They look unpleasant to me,” said one, referring to a type of non-toxic mushroom that is common around the world and is known for its white, random mushrooms.
“They look unpleasant to me too,” added another admin.
“Agree, Coprinoid,” shouted a third.
The group has more than 200 administrators who have proven track records for identifying plants and mushrooms, including one of the group’s founders, Kerry Woodfield, who is based in Cornwall, UK. Some were hired for engaging in more casual identities elsewhere on social media networks, and only administrators were supposed to comment until the cases were closed. “You are not allowed to participate unless you know what you are talking about,” Hunter said. “It’s like the opposite of the Internet.”
All administrators are volunteers with day work who dedicate extra time to the group. “The first step is to make sure we get the best and most accurate identification of the person who is panicking,” said Woodfield.
Many administrators are “on call” to receive notifications of all new posts, starting the identification effort within seconds. “Even when I was out on a busy street, I would literally stop and move,” said group admin Oktrin Miku, who is in the Philippines, to chip in.
In more difficult cases, the conversation may go to an admin-only group. “The advantage of the poison group is that we have a large database of people worldwide,” said Spike Mikulski, an administrator at Rhode Island who specializes in the fungus Amanita family, many of which may be hallucinogenic or toxic in certain ways. Depending on the dose and size of the person or animal. “If I’m at work or if I’m sleeping, there will be someone else.”
Positively identifying a sample can be difficult even through photos, so administrators can return to the original poster to cut it in half or request a photo of a different part of the sample. Whether it’s a rare mushroom or a common roadside plant, this IDT unanimously, many members say provides a reassuring environment that is unique to the group.
Cases are considered “closed” once a positive ID is generated, where non-admins are allowed to comment. After cases that end safely, an administrator regularly prescribes the final medicine: a bowl of ice cream.
“There were a lot of burnouts”
Behind the scenes, however, the group struggles with its decentralized structure and the difficulties of living on a social media platform.
Strong personalities among some group admins are known for clashing in their side conversations, which can completely avoid certain people. Woodfield has to keep his feet occasionally to cool the situation.
Another painful thing admins say is when new members ignore posting guidelines or try to learn about urgent needs to include ingestions through “developed” stories when there was really nothing. They can do this because they know the group’s reputation for quick responses, whereas in other ID groups it can take longer. What’s more, the administrators are worried about the limitations of the platform and fear of being shut down. There are innate problems with starting based on social media, such as not being recognized by medical institutions as a reliable source of information. “One challenge is legitimacy and perceived legitimacy,” said admin Ayesha Daulut, a UK-based dentist and a plant and fungus enthusiast.
Alex Tudzarevsky, the group’s founder in Sweden, said that if Facebook allowed non-admin members to block comments while a lawsuit was still pending, the group’s day-to-day operations could be greatly improved. There have been times when posts have been mistakenly flagged as inappropriate content by Facebook’s algorithms, says Tudzarowski, who fears that a certain number of groups will automatically shut down.
When asked about limiting who can comment on posts, a Facebook representative pointed out Vox to some of the company’s tools for group administrators, such as being able to throttle comments on posts and limit a specific member’s engagement. Delegates did not comment on posts that Poison Help members said were flagged as inappropriately inappropriate.
Many of the administrators who spoke to Vox also mentioned some of the experiences that many of us may have had in connection with this day: Burnout. After all, they are unpaid volunteers and their role can become an omnipresent stream of lawsuits. “There were a lot of burnouts, especially from the endless amount of dog posts,” Woodfield said. The group tried to dissuade him, saying, “It’s not necessary to be near a mushroom.” Members would then submit again, saying “my dog must have eaten it.”
But it is the interest in biodiversity that brings many administrators back. Debbie Weiss, a California-based admin and fungicide consultant, said: “I enjoy the randomness of it, never know what’s going on, and feel inspired by some new puzzles. “It’s like being a detective. Sometimes you have a little bit of data and you’re putting it together. “
The future of plant poison control
In some cases, the group provided identification information that was later rejected by a healthcare professional. But Johnson-Arbor of the National Capital Poison Center said they would consider any information provided by the group other than its own research. Poison Group has democratized information and provided a valuable service to people around the world.
Mary Metz conducted an animal rescue in Alabama and used the group’s information to save lives on multiple occasions. Before joining, he said, there was a lot of crazy Google image search and a 3 o’clock trip to the Emergency Veterinarian. Without the team, he said, “I’m going to have a panic attack.”
Administrators are considering going off-platform, either on the app or elsewhere. But that means leaving the ease of use and global presence of Facebook. They are not interested in monetizing what they do, for fear that it will go against what stands for the group.
Poison center experts are also thinking of ways to adapt. “A lot of young members of the population don’t like to call,” says Johnson-Arbor. “They don’t want to get stuck, or they want to get their answers online.” He envisions that they need to develop new ways to serve an online audience, such as being able to have a text conversation on a website, such as an online tool for toxic household substances. Johnson-Arbor usually recommends bringing plants to the local nursery to identify people, although he consults with a local mycologist to help identify the mushrooms. The North American Mycological Association also maintains a directory of mycologists available for consultation.
In Hunter’s case, they finally got a response to their email that the mushroom was, in fact, non-toxic – just after that evening. By then they already knew a lot. Within half a minute of posting on Poison Help, a picture of the mushroom that their son had entered, Hunter said, was administered by five admins. The family had nothing to worry about.
“Consensus on safe copronoids,” said one administrator, as if hitting a swallow. With ID, they’ve added a smile emoji and an image of Kirby, the 90s video game character best known for his wide opening and almost everything to breathe. In the picture, Kirby has a sign that reads: Case closed!
“A huge relief,” Hunter said.