Letter Re: A Reminder to Readers About Botulism

I think that the author of “Letter Re: A Reminder to Readers About Botulism” [posted on July 18th] is a little mistaken about the deadliness of “even a single small whiff of Botulinum toxin.” The video in the link he provided is a discussion of the effects of weaponized botulism toxin. In the video, it’s stated that botulism doesn’t make a very good open-air weapon, although it may have potential as a weapon in enclosed areas or by infecting food.

According to the Botulism Handbook for Epidemiologists, Clinicians, and Laboratory Workers:

…botulism can be picked up by (a) eating contaminated food, (b) through intestinal colonisation in infants fed contaminated-honey (though apparently not in adults fed the same honey), and (c) through open wound contamination when cleaning up contaminated surfaces or substances. In a later section, it states that “Botulinum toxins are extremely poisonous for humans. Minute quantities acquired by ingestion, inhalation, or by absorption through the eye or a break in the skin can cause profound intoxication and death;” however, I believe that in this section, they are referring to refined botulism toxin in a laboratory environment.

On the CDC “Botulism > Botulism Associated with Canned Chili Sauce, July 2007 > Questions and Answers” page, they describe the cleanup procedure for suspected or known-contaminated canned food as follows:

Do not open or puncture any unopened can of the recalled product.
Dispose of food that may be contaminated by placing in a sealable bag, wrapping another plastic bag around the sealable bag, and then taping tightly. Place bags in a trash receptacle for non-recyclable trash outside the home and out of reach of humans and pets. Do not discard the food in a sink, garbage disposal, or toilet. Avoid splashing and contact with the skin. Wear rubber or latex gloves when handling open containers of food that you think may be contaminated. Wash hands with soap and running water for at least 2 minutes after handling food or containers that may be contaminated.
Wipe up spills using a bleach solution (use 1?4 cup bleach for each 2 cups of water). Completely cover the spill with the bleach solution. Place a layer of paper towels, 5 to 10 towels thick, on top of the bleach. Let the towels sit for at least 15 minutes, then put the paper towels in the trash. Wipe up any remaining liquid with new paper towels. Clean the area with liquid soap and water to remove the bleach. Wash hands with soap and running water for at least 2 minutes. Sponges, cloths, rags and gloves that may have come into contact with contaminated food or containers should be discarded with the food.

While extreme care should be taken to limit exposure to contaminated food, including immediate disposal, wearing rubber gloves, and surface cleanup with bleach, again, the CDC doesn’t seem to be advocating the use of a respirator or warning to avoid breathing in “even a single small whiff” of the air from the can. Botulism is dangerous, but a botulism-contaminated food source is unlikely to kill you unless you touch it with an open wound or ingest some of the food. That said, I probably wouldn’t try and sniff around a bulging can of bad food; but if I did, and later suspected botulism, I wouldn’t be terrified I might die, either. – M.C.P.