If we could have your attention please, this is an important public service announcement from your neighborhood Reef Builders to let you know to be very careful when handling your Palythoa zoanthids.
Zoanthids are hardy, neigh indestructible flower animals of the coral reef which reef keepers have enjoyed growing in aquariums since the inception of the hobby. Zoanthids come primarily from three genera, Zoanthus, Palythoa and Protopalythoa, although most any large polyp of zoanthid is generally referred to as a Palythoa, or simply ‘Paly’.
With zoanthids in general being so popular, we would hazard to say that nearly all, or something like 98% of reef tanks have zoanthids in them, of some sort of another. Despite zoanthids being so popular and widespread in the marine aquarium hobby, apparently their owners are fully aware of how dangerous and toxic these animals are.
Palythoa in particular, are synthesizers of Palytoxin, a very VERY dangerous substance that is toxic to all animals, other corals, fish, birds, cats, dogs and people included. While reefers “kind of” know that they should be careful when handling all manner of zoanthids, especially Palythoa, it seems that too many palythoa growers are not taking enough care and caution when handling these dangerously toxic polyps.
Humans have known about the toxicity of Palythoas for hundreds of years, with Palythoa toxica being one of the first described species of Palys. In Maui, ancient Hawaiian warriors used Palythoa much like poison dart frogs, tipping their spears with Palytoxin to essentially turn them into deadly weapons.
Previously, some believed that most zoanthids sold for home aquariums were not of the toxic varieties but research and dangerous experiences by reefers have proven otherwise. Coral reef researchers have identified that Palytoxin is commonly found in the Palythoa zoanthids sold in basic fish stores, and if that wasn’t enough, a recent report by the Center for Disease Control recounts one man’s hospitalization for exposure to Palytoxin.
An Alaskan reefer was admitted to the emergency room after simply adding zoanthids to his aquarium. The toxicity case was so acute that the hospital decided to launch an investigation into the incident. The report included a lot of very important information about Palytoxin in addition to reporting what actually happened to this Alaskan reefer.
Most interesting was a mention of the LD50 of Palytoxin. “The dose at which 50% of exposed animals die following intravenous administration of palytoxin (LD50) has been shown to be as low as 0.033 µg/kg body weight”. For a 200lb man, this means that intravenous exposure to palytoxin requires as little as 0.003 grams for half of people; that’s almost a tenth the weight of a grain of rice!
Ok so we won’t be shooting up any palytoxin any time soon, but that metric just goes to show you how dangerous Palytoxin can really be. As dangerous as Palytoxin is, it’s hard to get it out of the host Palythoa, and into the human body, and it’s often some silly act of being careless that exposes victims to the toxin. Boiling, showering, eating, or handling Palythoas without gloves or protective eye wear is a big no-no.
It’s easy enough for adults to follow these guidelines, but kids and pets don’t know any better. For one thing, we wouldn’t let any children have tanks with Palythoas in them, and of course be sure to keep all of your pets away from the tank, especially while you are working with Palys.
It seems that the aquarium hobby has generally known about the dangers of Palythoa toxicity for a really long time. But this message is not getting across to enough people, and not urgently enough, that it seems like every six months there’s a pour soul suffering the symptoms of Palytoxin poisoning to remind us to really watch out.
Next weekend at MACNA Julian Sprung will be giving a talk explicitly covering the dangers of Palytoxin poisoning, how to recognize it, how to avoid it, and everything in between. Whether or not you can make it to Julian’s talk, please remind yourself that working with Palythoa zoanthids can be very dangerous and you don’t want to be the next person making the headlines because you were careless in handling your zoanthids. [CDC]
I had the misfortune of learning about Palytoxin the hard way back in 2012. After a customer had asked my employer if he could send someone to exterminate the palythoa, a great friend was trained on how to do it. Unfortunately for me, my employer switch our schedules and I ended up at this one without any training for exterminating. (I never kill anything, my main goal is to keep things alive and make them thrive). The long/short of it is, a near death experience and 10 years later, I am still in bad shape from it. As far as I know I have had the longest and worst exposure to date of anyone who has lived to tell about it. After my initial exposure from inhalation, (the customer suggested putting a huge paly-covered rock in his slop sink in the basement, as it was too big of a piece to use the little wire brush I was given to clean them off. It basically took up the entire sink. I waited for the water to get hot, plugged the drain, and lowered the piece in as it filled. As SOON as I reached over to turn off the water, my throat started closing and I started choking and coughing unaware of how serious this exposure was. I have a wicked work ethic, so I stayed at the location for another 2 hours to finish the job, the entire time inside the customers house, with the AC on and all the windows closed. (2 adults and 2 children were also in the house) I finished up, and went to a vitamin shop to pick up some NAC but I was already starting to go down hill. I got to my next account and had to leave because of how terribly I started feeling. I drove back to the shop, pulled into the parking lot and just as I did, my employer pulled away. I then called my fiancée who is a nurse, and she called my friend I worked with and my employer. My friend found me in my car going into shock and he drove me straight away to her hospital. (they are so useless at the hospital. They could not seem to understand that I was poisoned by a coral. yeah, I know it’s rare, but still, I’m dying and they’re asking me the dumbest questions and trying to give me an antibiotic. They pressured me to take Levaquin, so I signed myself out fearing for my life, and for dropped off at home. I nearly died in my bed, my lungs literally felt like they were on fire, like I had burning embers in my lungs, I was coughing up blood and thought for sure I was going to die. My head felt like it was going to pop, the most splitting headache I’ve ever experienced and my teeth felt like they would pop out of my mouth from the pressure. My brain swelled. My fiancée found me the next morning and immediately started rubbing me down with alcohol, and putting ice packs on my head, ankles and wrists. She took my temperature and it was 105.9,…(it was probably higher throughout the night as I lay there dying) I lost about 20lbs in 2 weeks, was white as a sheet, no color left in me and it was like my entire body was an open wound. I had gotten a piece of the coral on the back of my glove and it went right through the material and bummed a hole right down to the bone knuckle on my thumb. Manuka honey healed that right up in a matter of days, but as far as the rest of me, 10 years later and I am still disabled from it, according to the doctors, 100% Permanent/Total. Beside the fact that it wreaked havoc on my body, leaving me with Neurological, Lung and Brain damage, it has pretty much destroyed my whole life. I lost my fiancée, I can no longer work, and I am no longer the same as I was. I have faced adversity my entire life though, I am no stranger to it. I will do what I must to carry on.