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Four stricken by toxic shellfish

Paralytic shellfish poisoning hot in Juneau area bi-valves

Posted: April 13, 2012 - 5:59pm  |  Updated: April 15, 2012 - 12:08am

A Juneau man has fallen ill with paralytic shellfish poisoning from clams collected from Shelter Island. This is the fourth case reported near Juneau.

The case, reported to the Alaska Department of Health & Human Services on Friday, was reportedly caused by pink neck clams, also known as surf clams. The department plans to test the frozen suspect clams.

Health & Human Services reported eight cases of PSP during the summer of 2011, two of which ended up in intensive care. The toxin paralyses its victim, starting with numbness and tingling in the mouth and tongue, progressing into the extremities. 

DHSS Public Information Officer Greg Wilkinson said shellfish eaters who are experiencing these symptoms should seek medical help immediately. Once the toxin has moved into the trunk of the body, lungs can become paralyzed leading to death. Paralytic shellfish poisoning victims can be saved by a hospital’s respirator.

The poison comes from a type of algae that turns toxic in the clam’s system. Clams filter algae out of the water for food. The toxin leaves no visible traces.

“You can have two clams in your hand and one can be safe and the other hot,” Wilkinson said. The clams can be harvested next to each other on the same day, on the same beach.

“There’s no way to tell with clams,” Wilkinson said. “There is no known safe month, no known safe species, no known safe beach.”

And the toxin is tenacious.

“You can’t wash it out, you can’t cook it out,” Wilkinson said.

Clams, mussels, oysters, geoducks and scallops can contain the toxin.

Wilkinson said DHSS tested raw razor clams from the first outbreak, April 10. The uncooked shellfish, harvested from Admiralty Island, had a toxin level of 779 micrograms per 100 grams, or about 10 times the level deemed toxic by a Department of Environmental Conservation test for commercial shellfish.

The two other cases of PSP are suspected to have come from butter clams harvested from either Lincoln Island or Ralston Island.

The one way to absolutely lower a consumer’s risk of PSP?

“Buy them at the store,” Wilkinson said. The DEC tests all commercial shellfish. “Recreationally harvested shellfish can not be considered safe,” Wilkinson said.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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