A woman is dead after drinking tea containing a lethal poison that she unwittingly bought from an herbalist in San Francisco’s Chinatown, public health officials announced Monday.
The woman, whose identity was not released, became sick within an hour after sipping tea in February, according to Rachael Kagan, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. The woman, who was in her 50s, immediately developed weakness and abnormal heart rhythms, which required resuscitation. The San Francisco resident was hospitalized for weeks. She died Saturday, Kagan said.
A man in his 30s, who also drank the tea, suffered the same health ailments. He became critically ill and was hospitalized. The San Francisco resident has since recovered and was released on March 12, she said.
According to the health department, the patients purchased tea leaves at Sun Wing Wo Trading Company in Chinatown. They bought different blends of medicinal teas with several ingredients. The teas were mixed at the shop, health officials said.
Laboratory tests were performed on the patients and tea samples, and a plant-based toxin, aconite, was found in both. Health officials are testing ingredients in the patients’ tea blends.
Aconite is a wild plant and extremely toxic, according to the Journal of Clinical Toxicology. Commonly called monkshood, Wolf’s bane, helmet flower, “chuanwu,” “fuzi,” and “caowu,” the plant is used in Asian herbal medicine to treat bruises, pain and other conditions.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the roots are used only after they are processed to reduce toxicity, according to the journal. When high doses of aconite are consumed, patients can experience numbness, weakness, palpitations, chest pains, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea.
The toxin attacks the heart and can be lethal, Dr. Tomás Aragón, health officer for the city and county of San Francisco, said in a written statement. According to health officials, there is no antidote for aconite poisoning.
After the tea poisoning, environmental health inspectors visited the herbalist and removed the leaves consumed by the patients from the shop. The shop’s owner is working with the health department to find the source of the toxin.
“Anyone who has purchased tea from this location should not consume it and should throw it away immediately,” Aragon said.
It is unclear how the poisonous plant got mixed up with the tea leaves, Kagan said.
“We don’t know what happened,” she said. “Something went wrong in this case.”