Oxfordshire, UK – A British family and their pets became seriously ill after they breathed in toxic fumes that were released from a coral in a tank in their home. The entire family and their two dogs were poisoned by the fumes and were hospitalized.
The incident took place when 27-year-old Chris Matthews cleaned his fish tank, moving the contents to another container. During the cleaning process, he took out a rock covered in coral and scraped it clean, inadvertently releasing deadly palytoxin into the atmosphere.
The BBC reports that dozens of emergency officers, a hazardous area response team and ambulances surrounded the home. Crews with Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue followed instructions from the Public Health England to safely remove the toxic coral from the house.
Matthews, his girlfriend, mother, father, sister and her boyfriend, and four firefighters were rushed to the hospital for treatment after inhaling the poisonous fumes.
Officials tented the house to rid it of the poison and the family was able to return, though Matthews notes he plans to be much more careful when he cares for his fish in the future.
According to the CDC, palytoxin is a potentially life-threatening toxin that can act via dermal, inhalation, and oral routes of exposure. Marine aquarium hobbyists who introduce certain zoanthid corals into their aquariums are at risk for palytoxin exposure.
In August 2014, public health officials with the Alaska Section of Epidemiology received a report of a patient complaining of bitter metallic taste, fever, weakness, cough, and muscle pain 7 hours after introduction of live zoanthid coral into his home aquarium. An epidemiologic investigation revealed at least ten aquarium enthusiasts reporting similar symptoms consistent with palytoxin exposure in recent years, including multiple employees at an Anchorage aquarium shop.
Palytoxin is contained in some zoanthid marine corals. Zoanthid samples from both commercial and private aquariums of affected persons were found to contain high levels of palytoxin. Activities that could potentially produce aerosols (e.g., scrubbing or using hot water to remove zoanthids) should be undertaken with caution when cleaning marine aquariums or handling zoanthid corals.
Symptoms of palytoxin exposure include fever, conjunctivitis, and respiratory problems in people exposed to marine aerosols during proliferation of palytoxin and palytoxin-like compound–producing marine algae. While palytoxin may be more dangerous when ingested, there can still be serious side effects simply by breathing in the fumes such as a disruption of “normal corneal function” and “irreversible blindness”.