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What causes botulism?

A person can be stricken with botulism after ingesting the toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. The bacterium can form the toxin only in the absence of oxygen, so canned goods and products like meat that are wrapped in airtight casings are potential sources of botulism.

The pernicious toxin is more likely to be generated in low-acid food, such as mushrooms, peas, corn, or beans, than in a high-acid food like tomatoes. However, some new tomato hybrids are not acidic enough to prevent the bacteria from creating the toxin, so home canners beware. Food destined for canning must be heated to a temperature high enough, and for periods long enough, to kill any toxin-producing bacteria present.

If toxins have developed in a food that has been stored under anaerobic conditions, they can be made innocuous by boiling the food for 30 minutes. Nevertheless, any suspect food product - such as one with a swollen can or jar lid - should be discarded untasted. Botulism symptoms include malfunctioning of the nervous system. Vision, speech and swallowing are impaired. Death results in cases where the respiratory muscles are paralyzed.

There is an antiserum, but there is a catch to its use. It is most beneficial when given before the patient's symptoms are apparent, and most people have no idea that they have eaten contaminated food until they are physically affected. Once a person does exhibit symptoms, quick diagnosis and treatment is crucial to survival.

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