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Noxious Weed Sickens Six Who Ate Stew

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2008

Six people hospitalized with nausea, dizziness and hallucinations after a family dinner in Gaithersburg on Wednesday were sickened by jimson, a potential deadly weed that was mistakenly used as a cooking ingredient, Montgomery County health authorities said.

Authorities believe that leaves from the plant were picked from a small herb garden in the yard and added to a potato stew by a cook. Six family members who ate the stew quickly became ill; six others who did not eat the dish were unaffected.

Initially, investigators suspected that mint leaves from the garden, possibly sprayed with pesticide, might have been the culprit. County public health investigators returned to the house with a botanist, who quickly zeroed in on another plant in the garden.

"He said, 'Wow, this is jimson; that's really poisonous,' " said Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery Department of Health and Human Services. The plant had recently been cut, and investigators found leaf parts in the kitchen trash. The department received tests yesterday that confirmed the plant's presence in the stew.

The belladonna alkaloids found in jimson can cause serious neurological effects and can be fatal in high doses. The plant, which has long been used, and misused, as a medicine and intoxicant, is readily found in farm fields, Anderson said. It is more unusual for the weed to crop up in a suburban garden.

Satnam Singh, who was at the family dinner but did not eat the stew, said it was common for the family to cook with garden herbs. "We've always done it, but we'll certainly be more careful now," Singh said.

The six who were stricken, ages 20 to 70, were in stable condition, a hospital spokeswoman said yesterday. The family members are expected home soon, Singh said.

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