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SEARHC warns to not eat, harvest shellfish

Posted: June 10, 2011 - 3:35pm

With the news of state scientists finding incredibly high levels of toxins in shellfish, the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium is urging people in Southeast Alaska not to harvest and eat shellfish.

SEARHC said that in recent weeks there have been at least 14 cases of suspected paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) involving people who harvested and ate different types of shellfish harvested from beaches near Ketchikan and Metlakatla/Annette Island. Several of the people with PSP wound up being hospitalized, including a couple who spent time in intensive care. There were five cases of PSP in 2010, including the first two PSP-related deaths in Alaska since 1997 (in Juneau and Haines, with the Haines case also listing heart failure as an official cause of death).

According to marine scientists with the Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom (AHAB) monitoring and early warning program, this year Southeast Alaska has produced the highest levels of PSP toxin ever recorded. Some of the highest levels of PSP toxin in the world were discovered on Southeast Alaska beaches.

The Food and Drug Administration lists the safe level of PSP as any amount less than 80 micrograms (mcg) of toxin per 100 grams of shellfish meat. One recent sample of baby mussels from a Ketchikan boat dock had more than 30,000 mcg of PSP toxin per 100 grams of meat. Other tests involving mussels, butter clams and cockles also were significantly higher than the safe level of toxin.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services considers all recreationally harvested shellfish in Alaska to be at risk for toxic levels of PSP since nearly all of the state’s beaches go without regular monitoring. The only shellfish from Alaska the state considers safe is commercial shellfish, because it is routinely tested. Many of the harmful algal blooms that cause PSP toxin are invisible so the only way to accurately test for PSP levels is to use expensive lab tests. State and federal health officials urge people not to eat any shellfish they gather in Alaska.

“Many of our tribal citizens eat shellfish they gather through subsistence and recreational harvests, but this can be a very dangerous practice,” said Dr. David Vastola, SEARHC Community Health Care Services medical director. “There are many people who believe myths, such as only gather shellfish in months that contain an ‘R,’ or they think they can cook or freeze away the toxins. Unfortunately, these shellfish myths could make someone seriously ill or even kill them. We join state and federal health officials in urging Southeast Alaska residents not to eat shellfish gathered from local beaches. There’s too much risk involved, especially with the recent PSP levels.”

Early signs of PSP often include tingling of the lips and tongue. The symptoms may progress to tingling of fingers and toes, then loss of control of arms and legs, followed by difficulty breathing, Death can result in as little as two hours, so people showing PSP symptoms should contact their local clinic or emergency room as soon as possible. To learn more about the current situation and for educational resources about PSP (including first aid tips), go to http://www.searhc.org/ and click on the PSP warnings.

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