updated 5/10/2010 1:13:19 PM ET 2010-05-10T17:13:19

If the April 1 death of a Tacoma woman was due to hemlock poisoning, it would be the first such fatality in 11 years in the state, the Washington Poison Center said.

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Sakha Keo, 55, apparently put hemlock in a salad she ate, thinking it was something else, said Annie Waisanen, a Pierce County medical investigator.

The medical examiner's office is awaiting test results to confirm hemlock as the cause of her death, Waisanen said Monday.

The Bellingham Herald reports that hemlock poisoning is occurring more frequently as people eat more vegetables they grow or find.

A 35-year-old Bellingham man, David Westerlund, spent hours in an emergency room April 25 after he put what he thought was a carrot in a bowl of fermented vegetables.

He expects to make a full recovery, but Laurel Baldwin of the Whatcom County Noxious Weed Control Board said Westerlund is lucky he wasn't killed — by the same poison that killed Greek philosopher Socrates.

Three other known cases of people eating or being exposed to poison hemlock already have been reported for the year in Skagit, Thurston and Whitman counties.

"That was an unusual number for us," said Katie Von Derau of the poison center.

The cases prompted the center and state Noxious Weed Control Board to warn about the perils of mistaking poison hemlock for edible plants, such as parsley, parsnip, wild carrot and anise, which have similar-looking flowers, leaves and seeds.

Westerlund, who said he didn't think "something toxic or deadly could be in my garden," is trying to spread the warning. A proponent of local food, Westerlund said he wanted to educate the public partly because of the recent growth in school gardens.

Westerlund pulled up the hemlock from an area of his garden where carrots and onions had been planted last year. It had a top that looked like a carrot. He chopped it all up, threw it into a jar with cabbage, garlic, ginger, onions, sea salt and whey to ferment, then ate a bowl six days later.

Fifteen minutes later, while he was headed down winding Chuckanut Drive to visit friends in Bow, Westerlund noticed his eyes weren't tracking.

"My eye muscles were delayed," he said. "It's not a good thing for Chuckanut."

Then his body started to shake a little. He made it to Bow and friends there took him to United General Hospital in Sedro-Woolley.

Westerlund spent four hours in the emergency room and doesn't expect to have long-term health problems.

Baldwin, coordinator for the Whatcom County Noxious Weed Control Board, said poison hemlock is in the same plant family as carrot.

"That whole plant family is either very edible or very deadly, and it's important to know the difference. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes," she said.

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) grows along roadsides and waterways, in pastures and playgrounds, in vacant lots and cracks in the pavement.

"This plant is very adaptable," Baldwin said.

The plant grows 4 to 6 feet tall. It has white flowers and leaves that look like a cross between Italian parsley and a fern.

All parts of the plant are poisonous and affect the nervous system. Initial symptoms could include a burning sensation in the mouth, nausea, confusion, and muscle paralysis.

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On the Net:

Washington Poison Center wapc.org

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Information from: The Bellingham Herald, http://www.bellinghamherald.com

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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