Local Shellfish: Potentially Deadly Toxins
Shellfish harvest season is just around the corner, which means the Department of Health and Social Services is reminding Alaskans to be aware of the deadly toxins that can be found in the water.
Clarification: KTVA CBS 11 aired a story Wednesday about the risks of locally harvesting shellfish. Paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP, is a serious illness caused as a result of eating shellfish contaminated with toxic algea.
We said: “According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, two people died last year because of PSP infection: one ate cockles, the other the insides of a Dungeness crab.”
However, to clarify, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services specified that two people died “after experiencing” symptoms of PSP.
With shellfish harvest season around the corner, the Department of Health and Social Services is reminding Alaskans to be aware of the serious illnesses that lurk in the state’s waters, like red tide.
Both unpredictable and uncharitable, red tide is full of saxitoxin, a potent poison produced by algae, which gives it the water a red color. However, many people are not aware that red tide is not always red, and it can be deadly.
After a long winter, the warm temperatures tend to lure most Alaskans to the outdoors. But what they don’t realize is sport-caught shellfish: clams, mussels, scallops, oysters, geoducks and crab guts, can contain paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP.
“The toxin that is responsible for PSP is actually 1000 times more potent than cyanide, so it’s a very potent toxin,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, MD, MPH, the State Epidemiologist and Chief of Alaska’s Section of Epidemiology.
According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, two people died last year because of PSP infection: one ate cockles, the other the insides of a Dungeness crab.
“Every single case that we hear about is a public health emergency, because of the potential seriousness of actually being intoxicated with this toxin,” Dr. McLaughlin said.
While people are more prone to PSP in the summer, State Environmental Conservation officials said there is no way to indicate whether or not shellfish is infected. PSP cannot be cooked or cleaned out of shellfish.
Health officials said the only safe shellfish are the ones you buy in the stores or farmers markets with shellfish tags, which certify the shellfish has been tested by the state and is free of toxins
“Consumers can feel pretty comfortable, pretty assured that any shellfish they buy commercially is safe,” said Ron Klein, Program Manager at the Alaska Department of Food Safety & Sanitation.
The Food and Drug Administration requires Alaska to test all commercial shellfish for PSP. However, they do not inspect local waters or the recreational shellfish harvest.
“People can have the opportunity to make the choice, and its just a matter of as Clint Eastwood said, ‘Do you feel lucky?’," Klein said.
However, if you choose to harvest your own shellfish, state health officials warn you are susceptible to PSP. They list PSP symptoms as: tingling around the lips and fingertips, which may develop within minutes of eating poisoned shellfish. Stronger batches of PSP shellfish could yield symptoms like difficulty breathing, weak muscles and paralysis. The extreme affect, death, could be possible in as little as two hours.