Food is a hoot to eat, but it's significantly less fun when it's exploding or drowning you or turning you into a psychedelic werewolf. Here are seven kinds of real-life food disasters that will make you lose your appetite...forever.
1.) The Alcohol Still Explosion
Massive amounts of pressurized, highly flammable chemicals are going to explode at some point –- it's just going to happen. Before the 1900s, industrial distillery explosions and fires were relatively common. And one particular Midwest town is more or less The Distillery Fire Capital of the World: Pekin, Illinois.
You know how we just said distillery explosions were common once upon a time? The Pekin fire department's website lists six fires or explosions in distilleries between 1884 and 1891...almost once a year. Even though four people died and several others were injured in these various fires, they just kept making alcohol there.
Pekin's distillery problems considered well into the next century. In 1954, Pekin suffered its largest distillery fire ever. More than 100,000 barrels of whiskey were engulfed in 100-foot-high flames. Six people died and thirty were injured. In the aftermath, Time wrote that the fire was "so intense that a coal pile 100 yards away began to smolder."
And remember when the price of Wild Turkey went through the roof back in the early 2000s? That's because a fire destroyed 914,000 gallons of the stuff in in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky in May of 2000. No one was killed or injured, but the Lawrenceburg water treatment plant was at risk of catching fire. Firefighters managed to protect the treatment plant, but some 20% of the alcohol made its way into local waterways, causing the largest fish die-off in Kentucky history. According to a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources employee, "Someone said there were so many dead fish across the mouth of Elkhorn Creek that you could literally walk across it."
Another large distillery disaster occurred at Didion Ethanol in Cambria, Wisconsin. In June 2009, as much as 40,000 gallons of corn mash were dumped into wetlands near the plant. Nobody died, but it likely killed the fish, frogs, bugs, birds and plants in the area.
2.) The Mill or Granary Explosion
You know what else explodes besides pressurized alcohol? Large amounts of grain dust in enclosed spaces. Bread may be the staff of life, but there's death in the process.
The first recorded mill explosion occurred in Italy in 1785. In the United States between 1958 and 1985, there were 337 grain elevator, granary or mill explosions. Furthermore, 191 explosions between 1985 and 1997 killed a total of 24 and injured another 167 people (details here, here, and here).
One of the more famous grain explosions was the Washburn 'A' Mill blow-up. Advertised as the largest flour mill in America, the Washburn 'A' Mill Explosion was the worst single mill explosion of the 1800s.
This Minneapolis mill exploded on May 2, 1878. 14 were killed in the explosion and another four in the resulting fire. The fire spread and destroyed another five mills. Eventually, the Washburn 'A' Mill explosion was relegated to memory, while the Washburn Milling Company was relegated to breakfast: it became General Mills.
3.) The Food Flood
Food floods probably never happened to our early ancestors, unless they were trampled by a stampede of succulent aurochs. Only with the advent of industrialized food production could enough of any foodstuff be in one place to drown people.
On October 17th, 1814, a vat containing 162,120 gallons of beer broke at Tottenham Court Road, St. Giles, London, and the waves of beer knocked over other vats in the Meux and Company Brewery. 387,900 gallons gushed into the streets, knocking over two homes and partially collapsing a tavern. Imagine a 25-yard pool that is 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep...and filled with beer. Eight people drowned and a ninth was crushed by a collapsing wall. A court inquiry at the time ruled it an act of God. A terrible, terrible, drunk God.
What's more terrifying than a churning wall of suds? How about a burning wall of molasses rushing towards you? 2.5 million gallons of molasses flooded the streets of Boston on January 15, 1919. The molasses' holding tank exploded, firing pieces of sticky molasses-covered metal 200 feet in the air. A wave of molasses twenty feet high rushed down the streets of Beantown. But it wasn't just thick, sticky molasses; it was hot, thick, sticky molasses. The scene unfolded like some shoo-fly pie out of the Book of Revelations. 21 people were crushed or drowned in the molasses, another 150 were injured, and several horses were killed.
4.) The Incredibly Rare Salmonella Outbreak Used To Rig A Local Election
Plenty of people have been poisoned over the years, but it takes more than a couple people for an event to rise from emergency to disaster. There are two kinds of mass poisonings: the inadvertent and the 100% advertent. Poisoning a bunch of salad bars to fix local politics definitely qualifies as the latter, and it's such a bizarre incident that it deserves a category unto itself.
In 1984, the largest modern bioterror attack in the United States occurred in The Dalles, Oregon; this is one of only two confirmed cases of terrorists using biological agents as weapons. Members of the neighborhood Rajneeshpuram commune, who had acrimonious relationships with local government, hoped to win town elections by poisoning local salad bars with a salmonella slurry they called "salsa." 751 people became ill and 45 of those had to be hospitalized. Luckily, no one died. The group's leader, the Rolls-Royce-loving guru Osho, was deported from the US.
Ergot is a fungus that grows on grain plants, especially rye. If ingested it can cause hallucinations, paralysis, gangrene and death, so don't take it for Laser Floyd at the planetarium. Not only is the fungus itself toxic, it also produces alkaloids that poison the rye seeds and flour even if the fungus isn't consumed. It's the reason methylmercury fungicides exist.
In ye olde times, ergot was particularly pernicious, as it could affect an entire village all at once. Ergot poisoning was first documented in 857 CE in the Rhine Valley. From then until the discovery of that ergot was not part of the rye plant in 1853, France and Germany had regular outbreaks of ergot poisoning. Particularly wet years increased the fungi's reproduction. During the largest known ergot poisoning, in 944 CE, 40,000 people in France died. The last major outbreak of ergot poisoning occurred in 1927 in Russia and sickened 10,000 people.
Ergot has become particularly popular among academics and not just because you can make LSD out of it. Historians have linked ergot poisoning outbreaks, particularly the hallucinations, to the Salem witchcraft trials and French werewolf trials. And ergot poisoning outbreaks in France were concurrent with Viking invasions, suggesting it may have made the populace even more vulnerable to attacks. There is even evidence that after the bubonic plague of 1348-1350, widespread ergot poisoning continued to keep the population of Europe low.
6.) The Improperly Prepared Oddball Food
Oh, the dangers of improperly prepared tarantula. So crispy, such a delicacy, so likely to cause pharyngeal irritation. An expert tarantula chef will blowtorch off all of the arachnid's "urticating hairs." When this does not happen, these protective hairs can be lodged in the throat and cause irritation. This isn't exactly a disaster as much as it is a solemn reminder to choose your tarantula chef with the utmost discretion.
And if your chef has studied for three years, passed multiple written tests and the food you are about to eat still kills 50-70 people a year, you are in Japan about to feast on fugu, or blowfish! Yay!
Fugu was banned in the late 1500s after a large number of Japanese military officials succumbed to fugu poisoning prior to attacking Korea. An ounce of the tetrodotoxin in the fugu's liver and glands is equivalent to 1,200 ounces of cyanide. Douzo meshiagare!
7.) The Turkey Fryer Death Trap
And in the spirit of Thanksgiving, let's not forget those small household emergencies that, when taken as a group, constitute a country-wide disaster. It's hard to get numbers on deep-fried turkey fires, but fire departments America over HATE deep-fried turkeys. Hear that? Your turkey is making those sexy dudes on our calendar sad.
This blog post has various reported numbers from different agencies, insurance companies and consumer groups all over the country. There are about 4,300 fires on Thanksgiving on any given year of the last half-decade, and Allstate (which does not insure everybody) gets about 1,000 claims a year for deep-fryer fires. In the seven years before 2005, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had 112 reports of incidents involving turkey fryers. These incidents included both fires and burns from the fryers, so it may not be the riskiest thing you'll eat this year, but let's just say it's more dangerous than the tarantulas.
A special thanks to Jacob Neufeld and Jessica Cole for their input.
[Photo of the Pekin fire via Francis Miller/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Photo of the Cambria spill via Ethanol Incidents. Photo of the Washburn Mill via MNHS. Photo of the Molasses flood via Corbis.]