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Russians Dying--Literally--for Favorite Fungi

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like most Russians, Sergei Kayava and his family considered themselves mushroom experts--but the assumption proved fatal.

On July 8, he and his family eagerly dished up helpings of buttery fried forest mushrooms prepared by his mother-in-law.

“She is very good at cooking mushrooms. She boiled them and then fried them and then served them with boiled potatoes. It was delicious,” Kayava recalled Saturday.

But the dish killed Kayava’s wife, Marina, 40, and her father. Collecting mushrooms earlier that day, Kayava’s in-laws mistook the deadly blednaya poganka, or pale toadstool, for the innocuous and tasty syroyezhki mushroom.

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Now recovering in a hospital in Voronezh, 300 miles southeast of Moscow, Kayava, 31, managed to attend his wife’s funeral Saturday. His mother-in-law also is recovering.

“It is very stupid to bring home and cook your own poison,” he said grimly in an interview after returning to the hospital. “But we have been picking and eating mushrooms all our lives, and nothing ever happened.”

Regarded as the deadliest mushroom in the world, the blednaya poganka is otherwise known as the death cap, or Amanita phalloides. Just a quarter of one cap can kill. The first signs of poisoning usually appear six to 15 hours after consumption and include nausea, vomiting, severe abdominal pain and diarrhea. Those who do survive often suffer severe kidney and liver damage.

In Russia, foraging for mushrooms is a national obsession. The Russians call it quiet hunting.

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The mushroom season has just begun and lasts until late September, but already at least 95 people have died in Russia and Ukraine, a casualty figure much higher than normal for this time of year.

“What is happening is a real catastrophe,” said Nikolai Manchik, the chief doctor in charge of treating epidemics and sanitary problems in the city of Voronezh, where 19 have died. For Manchik, the death toll brings to mind a natural disaster, major industrial accident or gas attack. Yet there is little coverage in the national media of the mushroom deaths.

“The most absurd and terrible thing is that these people themselves went out into the woods to look for their death, to pick it up, to bring it home and even share it with their children, families, relatives, friends, or sell the deadly poison at markets or by the roadside,” he said.

Twenty-nine deaths occurred in the Belgorod, Voronezh and Volgograd regions of southern Russia. In Ukraine, 66 have perished.

Fourteen more victims were hospitalized in Voronezh in the 24 hours ending Saturday evening, despite graphic warnings on local radio and television this past week cautioning people to avoid collecting any mushrooms.

“That won’t stop people from doing it. Picking mushrooms is a passion and addiction with millions of people in our country,” said Dmitry Shevchuk, the Voronezh regional hospital’s toxicologist.

In the all-too-brief Russian summer, many wander for hours in the forests, picking wild strawberries and collecting hazelnuts and mushrooms.

The most prized delicacy, white mushrooms, known as cepe in French or porcini in Italian, are fried with oil and garlic and sour cream--or pickled to last through the winter.

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The death cap is found in Europe, parts of the former Soviet Union and the western United States, including California. It can be white, grayish-green or yellow and closely resembles syroyezhki mushrooms from the Russula family.

Voronezh police are now patrolling the forests, stopping mushroom foragers and checking their baskets.

“But you can’t post a policeman near every tree,” Manchik said.

Vladimir Ivannikov, duty officer at the Voronezh police headquarters, said there are not enough personnel to deal with the mushroom poisoning problem, adding that crime-fighting activities are being neglected in an effort to save lives.

“We can’t go out and destroy all the mushrooms. We can’t prohibit people from picking mushrooms. But we can stop them and explain to them the danger they are exposing themselves to,” he said.

Manchik said most of the victims were elderly and had failing eyesight. “They have been picking mushrooms all their lives, and they think that they are experienced enough,” he said.

Vladimir Ektov, chief doctor of the Voronezh regional hospital, said that, at the beginning of every summer, the hospital prepares itself for a rash of mushroom poisonings.

“But we didn’t expect so many casualties. The number beats all the past records,” he said.

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One popular theory in Russia is that environmental contamination causes edible mushrooms to mutate and become deadly. But health authorities reject the idea.

“Experts have made lots of environmental probes. It is established now beyond all doubt that these poisonings have nothing to do with any industrial poisons, salts, acids or radiation. The only reason is the deadly pale toadstool and nothing else,” Ektov said.

Like many victims, Kayava and his wife dismissed the early symptoms of poisoning as merely a bad stomach upset and delayed going to the hospital until Monday morning, even though Marina’s parents had been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance early last Sunday.

Marina died Thursday, four days after her father.

Ektov said it is difficult to save people who wait 48 hours before seeking medical assistance.

In the U.S., the treatment for poisoning cases is often a liver transplant; however, such steps are unheard of in Russia’s rundown medical system.

Part of the problem seems to be overconfidence among Russian mushroom hunters, many of whom pride themselves on their expertise.

“Whatever they may think about their experience and knowledge, I am convinced people in Russia are extremely undereducated about mushrooms,” Shevchuk said. “The situation has to be addressed before more people die.”

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Sergei L. Loiko of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.


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