How You Can Eat a Slug and Die of Rat Lungworm


A slug like this one, if infected with the nematode Angiostrongylus cantonensis, can infect anything that consumes it with rat lungworm disease. Flickr

Remember how, as a teenager, your mom asked you why you did this or that ill-advised thing, and you said "MOM, I wasn't the only one who was doing it!" And then she said, "I don't care if everybody was doing it, I want you to have better sense than that!" or "Just because Hayley jumped off a bridge...."

You can probably fill in the rest of that sentence.

Our mothers worry about us because we sometimes have bad ideas, and sometimes those bad ideas end tragically, like the time the Australian man died of rat lungworm disease after eating a slug on a dare.

In 2010, a 19-year-old rugby player named Sam Ballard was at a party, had been drinking, and when a friend dared him to eat a slug they found squirming across the patio, he popped it in his mouth and swallowed. Not long after, Ballard began vomiting and complaining of dizziness and pain in his legs. Doctors diagnosed him with angiostrongyliasis, caused by a parasitic roundworm that lives in the lungs of rats and can be passed on to gastropods through their feces.

Not everyone who comes down with angiostrongyliasis suffers the same fate as Ballard, but before too long, he contracted meningitis and lapsed into a 420-day coma that left him with a serious brain injury, paralyzed from the neck down and with severely limited ability to communicate. Ballard died of complications of his condition in November of 2018 at the age of 28, eight years after the slug slithered down his throat.

Sam Ballard, the Australian man who died eight years after ingesting a slug, seen here as a boy in happier days.
Screen shot/Youtube/howstuffworks

The lesson here: This green Earth is full of unknown dangers, and it's up to all of us to use sound judgment when putting things in our mouths. The slug Sam Ballard ate had evidently eaten rat poop — or maybe even sat atop a rat poop for a time, taking in the scenery, while the nematode, Angiostrongylus cantonensis, burrowed into its body. Since rats often eat slugs and snails, the parasitic roundworm was probably hoping to be eaten by another rat, whose lungs it could infest, be coughed up by, swallowed, and then pooped out, starting the cycle again.

You can avoid contracting angiostrongyliasis yourself by making sure any gastropod you eat is thoroughly cooked. Most cases have been identified in Australia, the United States and Caribbean, the Pacific Islands and parts of Asia and Africa. It's also a good idea to thoroughly wash your raw veggies, as slugs and snails can be found roaming lettuces and celery in your garden, as well.


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