The Facebook group is turning to controlling poisons for plants and mushrooms

The Facebook group is turning to controlling poisons for plants and mushrooms

Thin, white mushrooms appeared in part of Sarah Hunter’s backyard in western Massachusetts last May, after days of rain. One afternoon, Hunter’s wife ran into the house in panic. She found their five-year-old son sitting in the yard with a bite of the mushrooms she immediately took out of his mouth. Unsure if he had swallowed anything – and what that would mean if he had – Hunter called the poison control and received a general email address to which they could send photos of the specimen. They were told the response could take hours.

“It’s very scary,” Hunter later told Vox. “I have a child with special needs. It’s a little more dangerous with him. ” They thought, “Should we go to the emergency room?”

As the minutes went by, Hunter decided to check a public Facebook group recommended by a friend. A fast-growing global community, called Poisons Help; Emergency identification for fungi and plants helps people identify fungi and plants and assess the risk of poisoning when someone (or, more commonly, a pet) has swallowed or come in contact with a type of questionable or unknown toxicity.

Poisons Help does not provide professional medical advice, it is stated in the disclaimer. But administrators and group members say gathering efforts often lead to positive identifications. And that information can help group members when they talk to medical professionals or wait to get them to determine if treatment or emergency services are needed.

According to the National Poison Data System, nearly 7,500 known cases of the fungus are reported by telephone in the average year in the United States. But despite the existence of online databases on toxic substances and mobile identification applications, the identification of plants and fungi by telephone is particularly inconvenient due to the locational nature of certain species, not to mention the challenge of trying to describe them verbally. . There are about 148,000 known species of fungi worldwide and over 20,000 species of plants that can be swallowed, with probably many more not yet identified.

In an emergency, the poison control center and the doctor should be someone’s first contacts. Calls to 1-800-222-1222 – the national poison control number, which handles 2 million calls a year – are transferred by dialing to one of more than 50 regional centers in the United States poison control network.

“Most people who contact us will have some idea of ​​what they have been exposed to,” said Kelly Johnson-Arbor, medical director at the National Center for Capital Poisoning in Washington, DC. But all in all, “it can be very, very difficult to identify plants.”

The Poison Help Group serves to bridge that gap, forming salvation in situations that can become dire, and offering potentially life-saving advice at a time when many people come in contact with more species of flora and fungi than they are used to. Facebook (very big) problems Aside from that, Poisons Help is an example of a community that actually helps build an affordable new knowledge base that is far more practical than bringing a plant or mushroom sample to an expert in person for identification.

The group is not without growing pain and internal tensions, but some experts say that it is an alternative model for the future control of plant poisons.

How the group took root

Poisons Help was founded in 2018 when a handful of mushroom experts who knew each other from other Facebook groups focused on mycology came together to address more urgent cases of potential poisoning. Global membership has grown by about 40,000 members since last summer, from 60,000 to over 100,000, and the group regularly posts hundreds of posts a month. Members include non-medical personnel, as well as veterinarians, nurses and other health professionals.

“I was shocked at how quickly I was able to get answers to my posts and [that I got] really reliable identifications, ”said veterinary technician Kelsey Carpenter, who often recommends a group of people to the California clinic where she works. She recently posted on the page for the first time when a family dog ​​ate a mushroom, which turned out to be harmless. (Ninety-nine percent of fungi have little or no toxicity, according to To the North American Mycological Association, but 1 percent that is highly toxic can lead to life-threatening complications for pets.)

“Veterinary care is harder to get than ever,” Carpenter said, pointing to current shortage of veterinarians and technicians. “A resource like this identification group is becoming even more critical.”

Courtesy of Sarah Hunter

Users are asked to provide information on the geographical location, symptoms of the pet (or person) and time of ingestion, along with photographs of the plant or fungus in question. In Hunter’s case, they took a picture of white mushrooms that their son took out on their phone and posted it with their message. “Do you have any ideas?” they asked.

Almost immediately, the administrators began to respond.

“These look silky to me,” said one, referring to some sort of non-toxic fungus common around the world and known for its white, shaggy mane.

“They look silly to me too,” another administrator added.

“I agree, coprinoid,” said a third.

The group has more than 200 administrators who have proven results in identifying plants and fungi, according to one of the group’s founders, Kerry Woodfield, who is headquartered in Cornwall, UK. Some are recruited for their involvement in more casual identification elsewhere on social media, and only administrators should comment on cases until they close. “You are not allowed to participate if you do not know what you are talking about,” Hunter said. “It’s like the opposite of the Internet.”

All administrators are volunteers with daily chores that dedicate free time to the group. “The primary function is to ensure that panicked people get the best and most accurate identification,” Woodfield said.

Many administrators are “on duty” to receive notifications of all new posts, triggering identification in seconds. “Even when I was outside on a busy street, I would literally stop and step back” to get involved, said group administrator Octrine Micu, who lives in the Philippines.

In severe cases, conversations can be moved to an administrator-only group. “The advantage of the poison group is that we have a large database of people who are global,” said Spike Mikulski, an administrator in Rhode Island who is an expert on the Amanita mushroom family, many of which can be hallucinogenic or toxic in certain doses and depending on a person’s size. or animals. “If I’m at work or sleeping, there will be someone else.”

Positive sample identification can be difficult even with photos, so administrators can return to the original poster and ask to be halved or to request a photo of another part of the sample. Many members say that this ID consensus, whether it is a rare mushroom or an ordinary plant by the roadside, provides an encouraging atmosphere that is unique to the group.

Cases are considered “closed” after a positive ID is created, at which point non-administrators are allowed to comment. After cases that end safely, one of the administrators regularly prescribes a top-notch remedy: a bowl of ice cream.

“There was a lot of burning”

However, behind the scenes, the group struggles with its decentralized structure and the difficulties of living on a social media platform.

It is known that strong personalities among some of the group administrators clash in their side conversations, which can lead to the complete avoidance of certain people. Woodfield has to get involved from time to time to cool the situation.

Another sore point, administrators say, is when new members ignore publication guidelines or try to circumvent emergency requests by “developing” stories that involve swallowing when they were not originally available. They can do this because they know the reputation of the quick response group, while it could take longer in other ID groups. Moreover, administrators worry about the limitations of the platform itself and fear shutdown. There are inherent problems with social networking to begin with, such as non-recognition by a medical institution as a credible source of information. “The challenge is legitimacy and perceived legitimacy,” said administrator Aisha Dowlut, a UK dentist and plant and mushroom enthusiast.

The group’s day-to-day operations could be greatly improved if Facebook allowed non-administrators to exclude comments while the case is still open, said Alex Tudjarovski, another of the group’s founders, based in Sweden. There have also been cases where the Facebook algorithm has mislabeled posts as inappropriate content, said Tudjarovski, who fears that in a number of groups the groups will be closed automatically.

Asked about restricting who can comment on posts, a Facebook representative pointed to some of the tools the company has introduced for group administrators, such as the ability to reduce comments on posts and limit the engagement of a particular member. The representative did not comment on posts that Poisons Help members say were incorrectly marked as inappropriate.

Many administrators who have spoken to Vox have also mentioned that they have experienced something that many of us can relate to these days: burnout. After all, they are unpaid volunteers and their role can become comprehensive across cases. “There was a lot of burning,” Woodfield said, “especially because of the endless amount of dog poles.” However, the group tried to reject some, she says, on the grounds that “it is not an emergency to exist near a mushroom”. Then the members would simply log in again, saying “my dog ​​definitely ate this”.

But it is the interest in biodiversity that has led many administrators to return. “I enjoy the randomness of it, I never know what’s coming, and I feel stimulated by some new puzzle,” said Debbie Viess, an administrator and consultant for mushroom poisoning, who lives in California. “It’s like a detective. Sometimes you only have a little bit of data and you put it all together. ”

The future of plant poison control

In several cases, the group provided identification data that was later denied by the health worker. However, Johnson-Arbor of the National Center for Capital Poisoning says it will consider any information the group provides in addition to its research. The Poison Group has democratized information and is providing valuable service to people around the world.

Mary Metze is leading a rescue operation in Alabama and has used information from the life-saving group on multiple occasions. Prior to joining, she said, there were many frantic Google image searches and departures to the emergency vet at 3 p.m. Without the group, she said, “I would have a panic attack.”

Administrators have considered going beyond the platform, either to the app or anywhere else. But that would mean giving up the ease of use and global presence of Facebook. They are also not interested in monetizing what they do, fearing it would be against what the group stands for.

Poison center experts are also thinking about ways to adapt. “Many younger members of the population don’t like to show up,” Johnson-Arbor said. “They don’t want to be on hold, or they’d rather just get their answer online.” She imagines that they will have to develop new ways of serving online audiences, such as the ability to have a text conversation on a website, similar to the online tool for toxic substances in the household. Johnson-Arbor usually recommends that people bring the plants to a local nursery to identify them, although she contacts a local mycologist for help in identifying the fungus. The North American Mycological Association also holds a directory of mycologists which are available for consultation.

In Hunter’s case, they finally received a reply to their email that the mushroom was indeed non-toxic – only later that evening. By then they already knew that. Within half a minute of posting on Poisons Help a picture of the mushroom their son had entered, Hunter said, five administrators had identified it. The family had nothing to worry about.

“Consensus on harmless coprinoids,” the administrator said, as if hitting with a hammer. Along with ID, they added an emoji smile and a picture of Kirby, a character from a 90s video game, best known for opening and breathing almost anything. In the picture, Kirby holds a sign that reads: CASE CLOSED!

“Great relief,” Hunter said.

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