Beware the Deadly Plant That Kids Mistake for Candy

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The moment the Bonneys realized they could lose their 18-month-old son, Duncan, came when a doctor asked Craig and Stephany Bonney if they wanted directions to the hospital chapel, so they could pray for him.

Their story has a happy ending, but the parents have become almost militant in speaking up about the poison that almost killed their son. Because, while cases remain rare, the toxin exists far more readily than they or their doctors realized.

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Duncan ended up in intensive care because he ate several small red and black beans, Abrus precatorius, also known as rosary peas for their use in some Catholic rosaries.

These beans, typically used in jewelry and possibly some toys, contain abrin, a poison on par with ricin, a notorious chemical that has been weaponized. They grow in tropical climates, such as South America and Asia, on an invasive vine. The rosary peas’ saving grace is a hard casing. Ingested whole, the rosary pea may cause some mild stomach upset. If the bean’s surface has been breached, however — scratched, chewed, or punctured for beading — the poison can prove deadly.

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Stephany Bonney and her son, Duncan, in the hospital. (Photo: Bonney Family)

That’s what Dr. Mazin Alhamdani believes happened in Duncan’s case. While no one will ever know exactly what the boy ate, the severity of Duncan’s illness led the doctor to believe that little Duncan had chewed before swallowing one or two of the handful of beans found in his diaper.

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“I would consider it a serious threat for two reasons,” says Dr. Alhamdani, a pediatric emergency physician who treated Duncan at the New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. “It grows in some areas in the U.S. like Florida, and some other tropical areas. It looks very appealing to kids — it’s bright red, it has a rough tip, it looks like candy.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the Bonneys shared their story from the comfort of their cozy living room deep in Brooklyn, near the working-class Bay Ridge neighborhood. Stephany Bonney, 33, is a senior fundraising manager for the American Cancer Society. Craig Bonney, 41, is the director of support services for New York City’s Office of Emergency Management. Duncan, now a skinny, active 3-year-old, lays out wooden train tracks while his baby sister naps upstairs.

The Bonneys had never heard of the bean before Duncan’s hospital stay. Neither had Dr. Alhamdani — nor had scores of doctors he has spoken with since he met Duncan.

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Stephany Bonney was 39 weeks pregnant, working from home, “feet up, happier than a you-know-whatsky,” when her son’s daycare called: The boy had fever and nausea, could she come fetch him? Overnight, he wouldn’t keep anything down. The parents kept in touch with their pediatrician, but no one panicked.

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The deadly Abrus precatorius beads, also known as rosary peas for their use in some Catholic rosaries, grow in tropical climates like Florida on an invasive vine. They contain abrin poison. (Photo: Bonney Family)

The next morning, they noticed what Stephany calls “plastic-looking pellets” in Duncan’s diaper. Craig, who usually shudders at bodily fluids, washed them to reveal a handful of little red and black beads. He Googled … and then he panicked. He sent a photo to the family pediatrician, who reached out to Poison Control. She called back and told them doctors would meet the family in the ER.

Abrin has no antidote. Doctors can only treat the symptoms, Dr. Alhamdani says, making sure the patient’s vomiting and diarrhea don’t lead to dehydration, and track whether the toxins have reached the bloodstream — that’s the worst-case scenario that can lead to organ failure.

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And so, for 72 hours in the hospital, the Bonneys and their medical team waited.

“We had the cleanest room in the hospital,” Craig Bonney tells Yahoo Parenting. “All I could do was clean. I just kept cleaning to keep from crying.”

That Thursday, the doctors let Duncan visit the hospital playroom. “That was the minute we said, ‘he’s going to make it,’” says Stephany.

The next day, Duncan went home.

Since then, the Bonneys have talked to everyone they can about their story.

So has their doctor, who wrote up the case for a journal that’s publicly available. He hadn’t found any other documentation of a young child with abrin poisoning.

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It is rare. The American Association of Poison Control Centers lists the beans under a general “Toxalbumins” heading, which includes several types of plants. There were 115 cases of children 5 and under poisoned by those plants in 2013, and no deaths, AAPCC data shows.

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One of the tests Duncan underwent in the hospital. (Photo: Bonney Family)

Christine Stork, an expert with AAPCC, says parents shouldn’t panic, but they probably should toss any jewelry or rosaries that appear to include any of the beads.

“If you have any accessibility to small children, they should get rid of it,” she says.

She feels confident that the symptoms are so severe, doctors wouldn’t have missed cases.

“I don’t think it’s common that we miss cases,” she says. ”I think it’s probably, we have it in our homes and don’t realize it.”

But Dr. Alhamdani feels doctors could miss the diagnosis.

“If kids ingest enough or bite enough and start having a lot of abdominal issues — parents and doctors won’t know,” he says. “They will think it’s just a stomach flu and ignore it until it’s too late.”

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No test exists for the poison, he notes, and chewed beans wouldn’t show in a diaper. He cautions, however, that the kind of vomiting and diarrhea that results from abrin poisoning would be severe enough that parents would likely call their pediatrician, even if they didn’t know the source. Few would mistake this for a common stomach bug.

Back in the Bonneys’ living room, Stephany shows how common the beads are by pulling up a photo (below) a doctor took of a bracelet worn by a little girl down the hall from Duncan’s hospital room. Abrus precatorius, right there.

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Photo: Bonney Family

And then it gets personal. Something shifted in my memory. I used to dabble in jewelry making. Years ago, before I had my daughter, before my husband and I wed, he and I traveled to Peru, where I picked up a small baggie of interesting red and black beads.

It couldn’t be, I thought.

Once home, I tore apart my craft closet. I spotted the little baggie under a pile of fleece left over from a crib blanket for my now 3-year-old.

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Photo: Anne Miller

I texted a photo (above) to Dr. Alhamdani, who confirmed, with 99 percent certainty, I had a bag full of Abrus precatorius, punctured for beading. If my daughter had ever found them…

I couldn’t complete the thought. I took a few photos for journalism’s sake, then tossed the beads.

Top photo: Craig and Stephany Bonney, with their son, Duncan, shortly before he was hospitalized.


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