State defends shellfish poisoning conclusions

Posted: Friday, August 13, 2010

State health officials say they still consider two Southeast Alaska residents who died not long after suffering symptoms of paralytic shellfish poisoning to be victims of a recent outbreak, even though their deaths were caused by other factors.

"We are standing by that determination," said Greg Wilkinson, spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Services, which included the state's Division of Public Health and Epidemiology Section.

"The clinical definition of PSP would make both the woman from Juneau and the man from Haines PSP cases," Wilkinson said.

Dottie Lindoff of Juneau died at Bartlett Regional Hospital in late June, and Mike Saunders died in Haines shortly thereafter. Both had recently consumed shellfish. Lindoff ate cockles gathered near Point Louisa in Auke Bay and Saunders had Dungeness crab caught near Chilkat Inlet's Jenkins Rock in the Haines area.

Both sought treatment at Bartlett.

Lindoff died of cardiopulmonary arrest two days after admission. Saunders was released from Bartlett after his symptoms improved. He returned to Haines, where he died the next day.

Saunders' wife, Kate Saunders, told the Chilkat Valley News the state medical examiner determined his death was caused by heart disease and not PSP. She said she was told 90 percent of his heart was blocked and he likely died from arrhythmia from previous heart damage from smaller, unnoticed heart attacks.

Before his death, Saunders told the Haines newspaper he doubted that he'd ever had PSP.

While crab meat is unlikely to contain PSP toxins, it is sometimes present in crab viscera. The Public Health Division reported that Saunders had consumed viscera.

"In an interview with the Chilkat Valley News he flatly denied eating any viscera," the paper reported.

"According to the information we had, he ate a large amount of crab, and not just eating the meat but sucking the juice out of various portions, that was the understanding we had," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson said the state has different levels of certainty based on various elements of the epidemiological investigation. Because of some uncertainty around Saunders' case, the state considers that to be a "suspected" case of PSP.

Kate Saunders told the newspaper the Haines residents who threw the party where the crab was eaten were relieved to find out her husband had not been killed by PSP, and that they'd had feelings of guilt if the death was linked to PSP.

The state considers the Lindoff case to be more certain, but in that instance the family is disputing the PSP diagnosis as well.

Family members told Juneau's KINY radio the family was not convinced that PSP was the cause of death in that case either.

Wilkinson said that Public Health isn't saying that Lindoff died of PSP, just that she had it. She had classic symptoms, he said, and was known to have eaten cockles before she died.

Most importantly, the state tested cockles from the area, and found toxin levels more than 25 times beyond the danger level.

"We had very hot results from testing," Wilkinson said.

The combination of factors leads the state to consider Lindoff a "confirmed" PSP case, he said.

Lindoff family members were unavailable for comment Thursday.

Three other, milder cases occurred in the Kodiak area, the epidemiology section said.

That came after only two reported cases in the previous four years, and led public health officials to warn against consumption of personally harvested shellfish.

Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or

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