Toxic airborne poison from aquarium coral nearly kills Texas family

Reef loss could cost global economies up to $750 billion, according to a new study.

Chasity Ahman of Cedar Park, Texas, is warning others after a coral in her saltwater aquarium nearly killed her and her family, she told Austin-based KVUE.

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While cleaning her fish tank Thursday, she noticed “these little, cute ... button polyps” growing on a rock and used a toothbrush to scrape off some algae on the coral, called palythoa.

"Within an hour, we were all feeling kind of different," Ahman said. The symptoms were worse than the flu.

"We couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't answer the door. I couldn't force myself out of bed,” she said about the next morning. Once they made it to the hospital, even the doctors were at a loss.

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When Ahman brushed the pretty palythoa, a coral in the zoanthid species commonly bought anywhere saltwater fish are sold, the coral released a toxin called palytoxin, which experts consider one of the deadliest poisons in the natural world. According to Discover Magazine, one gram of the poison can kill a hundred million mice.

Hunter Leber, the saltwater livestock manager at Austin Aqua-Dome, told KVUE the toxin can affect the central nervous system. The toxin also killed about five of her fish, Ahman said.

"When that stuff becomes airborne, it's usually caused by somebody scraping. I've heard of someone trying to boil the polyps off of a rock to clean it," Leber said.

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This isn't the first time the dangers of airborne poison from zoanthids has made headlines. Earlier this week, a Canadian man handling Australian zoanthid coral from tank to tank said the poison was released into the air and left him and his entire family of seven hospitalized, CBC reported.

Another family of seven in Australia was hospitalized when a nearby coral formation released the palytoxin.

If you’re in contact with palythoa, remember to handle them with extra care, or, Leber suggests just leaving them alone for the most part.