No Need For Morel Panic: Arsenic Fears are a Hype

The first thing morel mushroom hunters need to know about their quarry is that it is safe, regardless of whether it is found five, 10 or 50 kilometers from the site of the former Giant and Con mines.

The same goes for the birch boletes, hawkswing, hedgehog, shaggymane, and common meadow mushrooms that are abundant throughout the city and surrounding forests.

“The only mushrooms I would not eat are those that grow on mine waste,” Dr. Ken Reimer told Edge online in an interview today from his office at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.

Reimer, who is co-leading a study with Irish Koch and Michelle Nearing on the presence of arsenic in plants and mushrooms in and around Yellowknife, said that most mushrooms naturally contain harmless organic arsenic.

“It’s not the Agatha Christie kind,” Reimer said. Nor is it the arsenic trioxide that belched by the ton from mine roasters and settled on the land around Yellowknife.

His only caution: “Morels likely contain some inorganic arsenic, so they should be eaten in moderation.”

Reimer led an earlier study of arsenic contamination from the Giant and Con mines, and found that garden vegetables in Yellowknife have 10 times more arsenic than those in the supermarket, but pronounced home-grown produce safe to eat.

The reason: garden vegetables contain small amounts of non-toxic organic arsenic; they do not concentrate the dangerous inorganic arsenic, he said.

“Mushrooms behave the same way,” said Reimer. “They are not arsenic sponges and they are not used to clean contaminated mine waste. It would be wonderful if that was true, but it isn’t.”

The only known instance of arsenic poisoning that has been traced to the mines occurred more than 60 years ago, when a coroner’s inquest linked the death of a Ndilo child to meltwater contaminated with arsenic.

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