- Scientific name: Botulinum toxin. The toxin, or poison, is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum (not a virus).
- Botulinum toxin is the most poisonous substance known to science.
- Botulism is a muscle-paralyzing disease that develops after a person is poisoned with botulinum toxin.
- The toxin is colorless, odorless, and tasteless.
Clostridium botulinum exists naturally in the environment, and the botulinum toxin it produces can cause two types of illness:
Foodborne botulism (including infant botulism)
- Inhalation botulism, caused by breathing botulinum toxin, does not occur naturally but could happen as a result of deliberate dissemination of the toxin in the air by a technologically sophisticated terrorist or as a laboratory accident.
- Botulism is not contagious.
Botulinum Toxin as a Weapon
Clostridium botulinum bacteria produce a toxin. Terrorists have tried to weaponize botulinum toxin by refining the toxin and putting it into an aerosol form. Refined or crude preparations of toxin could be used to poison food or beverages, and refined toxin, with a sophisticated delivery system, could be used to disseminate the toxin by air.
- Botulism toxin can be disseminated via the air, water, or food.
- Such contamination would be hard to detect because botulinum toxin is colorless, odorless, and tasteless.
- Poisoning the water supply would be difficult for terrorists because:
Large quantities of toxin would be needed to affect the water system.
Chlorine in most water-treatment facilities would destroy the toxin.
What We Don't Know About Botulinum Toxin as a Weapon
Experts believe that only a small amount of the toxin would need to be inhaled to be deadly on a large-scale basis.
However, because there has never been a successful attack, the exact amount needed is still a question.
Identifying an Attack
- Because botulinum toxin is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, a foodborne, waterborne, or aerosol attack would probably go unnoticed until people exhibit symptoms.
- Existing public-health surveillance is likely to rapidly identify a large-scale attack once victims began seeking medical care.
Botulinum Toxin Illnesses
- This form of botulism is caused by eating improperly preserved or cooked food; contamination can be caused by improper canning or cooking of foods.
- Contaminated food may be discolored or have a bad odor or taste.
- In infants, botulism can occur when a large amount of the spore is ingested through food products, such as honey and corn syrup, normally tolerated by adults.
- Foodborne symptoms generally begin 18 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food but can occur as early as six hours or as late as 10 days after food consumption.
- Initial symptoms include blurred or double vision, slurred speech, drooping eyelids, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness.
- Botulism toxin spreads throughout the body and predominantly affects the nervous system.
- Within hours, a facial paralysis begins and spreads to the rest of the body.
- Botulism can result in respiratory failure.
If treated, ingested botulism has a survival rate of more than 90 percent.
- This form of botulism is extremely rare.
- It occurs when someone gets the bacteria into an open cut.
- This illness is most often found in injection drug users.