Botulism is the term used to describe poisoning from the toxin produced by a bacterium Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium is in the same family as the one that causes gas gangrene. It’s a nasty little devil. The botulinum organism grows in contaminated food and often appears in contaminated canned goods. The bacterium can grow inside the sealed can because they do not need oxygen to thrive. It is also found in contaminated wounds that are not treated properly or kept clean.
The toxin produced by these bacteria is one of the most deadly toxins known. A few drops could take out an entire room. A single gram could kill 1000 people; an ounce could kill 30,000 people.
It is classified as a neurological toxin because it interferes with the transmission of signals throughout our nervous system. When exposed the victim will experience some combination of these symptoms: weakness, a staggering gait, paralysis, double vision (which comes from paralysis of the muscles that move and coordinate our eyeballs), abdominal cramping with associated nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath and finally the inability to breathe at all, difficulty swallowing or speaking, and a handful of other pleasant symptoms. Ultimately, the victim will stop breathing and die.
Treatment with an injectable botulinus antitoxin must occur quickly if the victim is to survive. The antitoxin binds with the toxin and makes it ineffective by preventing it from attacking the nerves. If not given fairly quickly, the individual will die from asphyxia as the muscles needed for breathing become paralyzed.
Now there are concerns that this might become a bioterrorism weapon. It is ideally suited for this since a very small amount placed in food or water or sprayed over a group of individuals could prove deadly to a large number of people in a very short period time. In its pure form it makes anthrax seem small potatoes.
There are legitimate medical uses for this toxin, beside cosmetic ones, but there are very few companies that manufacture it for these purposes. But recent reports indicate that several independent manufacturers around the world are also producing Botox and if they are able to produce this more dilute form, they might also be able to produce a purer form of the toxin. Since such small amounts are needed to produce mass casualties, this could pose a serious public risk as it could easily be smuggled across borders and even sent by the mail.