The Missoula City-County Health Department is reminding residents to cook morel mushrooms, after a report that someone got sick after eating either uncooked morel mushrooms or possible false morels.

“Morels should not be eaten raw,” said Mary Lou Gilman, environmental health specialist. “They should all be cooked.”

False morels contain a substance called monomethylhydrazines (MMH), a potent carcinogen that is used in a concentrated form as self-oxidizing rocket fuel. Its effects in an eaten morel are exacerbated by alcohol. The person who got sick also drank alcohol with the dinner that included the uncooked mushrooms.

MMH is present in true morels “in parts per billion,” said Missoula mycologist Larry Evans. “False morels, it’s more like parts per hundred.”

The substance vaporizes at about 160 degrees, which is why cooking is protective, Evans said.

“I have eaten false morels,” Evans said. “I eat chicken. But I don’t eat raw chicken. Nobody’s eating live chicken out there. And nobody should be eating live morels.”

In European culinary factories, where they process a lot of false morels, workers have been known to become nauseated, dizzy and even convulsive from breathing the steam.

MMH affects liver function and has a cumulative effect, he said.

“You can get a dose of false morel over a lifetime,” he said. “And it’ll kill you at the last meal. Until then, you won’t know it.”

True morels have caps that look like sponges or honeycombs. The bottom edge of the cap is attached directly to the stem. A false morel’s cap hangs free around the stem like a skirt or like the common white mushrooms found in grocery stores. Also, in a false morel the surface of the cap has folds and wrinkles but not pits and ridges like a true morel.

Evans said he gets about one call a year telling of morel-related sickness, but he knows of no deaths.

The health department has put together a brochure, “Know Your Morels,” that should be available from all morel sellers at the Missoula Farmers Market.

You can also look at the Western Montana Mycological Association’s Web site at www.fungaljungal.org. It has photographs showing false morels and links to other sites.

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