Texas

Airborne poison left Texas family feeling 'like death.' It came from the fish tank

Anyone can buy palythoa coral at aquarium supply stores, but know before you go. Touching or cleaning them can be harmful to humans and other pets in the house.
Anyone can buy palythoa coral at aquarium supply stores, but know before you go. Touching or cleaning them can be harmful to humans and other pets in the house.

The home aquarium was a beautiful addition to her family's living room in Cedar Park, Texas.

Then Chasity Ahman found out the hard way that one of its prettiest inhabitants was potentially deadly.

"I noticed these little, cute ... button polyps that were new to me," she told KVUE. She didn't want them taking over the entire coral formation, so she started scrubbing the coral, called palythoa, with a toothbrush.

That was a big mistake, she'd find days later, when her whole family was hospitalized. Within an hour, she told the station, the whole family felt "different."

Then came flulike symptoms. Then Ahman, her husband and their two daughters couldn't get out of bed.

Palythoa_sp,_macro.jpg
Some of the prettiest decorations in your fish tank might be deadly. Wikimedia Commons

See, palythoa include a few dozen species of colonial coral, and they're often some of the prettiest creatures with the most vibrant colors in home fish tanks. But the fact that they're stuck to rocks for their entire life leaves them almost defenseless, except the one that Ahman and her family fell victim to.

Palythoa and other coral formations known as Zoanthids release something called a palytoxin into the water when brushed up against in the wild, or by an unknowing aquarium owner's toothbrush. In Ahman's case, the poison became airborne and made the whole family sick.

Discover Magazine calls palytoxin the natural world's second-deadliest poison. One gram of the stuff can kill a hundred million mice.

It doesn't take a full-on toothbrush scrub to release the toxin, either. Earlier this week, a Canadian man was transferring some Australian Zoanthid coral from one tank to another and released the poisonous mist into the air in his home in Quebec, and his entire family of seven was hospitalized, according to CBC.

Last year, Aldinga Beach near Adelaide, Australia, was evacuated in a hazmat event when palytoxin was released from a nearby coral formation. Another family of seven were hospitalized in that incident.

There were an additional 10 cases of palytoxin poisoning in Alaska between 2012 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For Ahman, who told KVUE her family felt 'like death' even after their recent hospital stay, the effects hit home before she even knew what lurked behind the coral's pretty colors.

A team of researchers and students are planting branches clipped from a coral nursery off Key Biscayne.

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