This past week, there were four suspected cases of paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) reported in Juneau. These four cases, combined with a couple of PSP cases in the Ketchikan/Metlakatla areas this winter and record-high levels of the PSP toxin found in shellfish last summer should serve as reminders that the state discourages eating recreationally and subsistence-harvested shellfish on most beaches in Alaska.
The first three PSP cases reported to the Alaska Section on Epidemiology last week involved clams harvested over the Easter weekend near Juneau — the first case reported April 10 involved razor clams from Admiralty Island and the next two cases reported April 12 involved butter clams from either Lincoln Island or Ralston Island. On April 13, another case was reported where a person ate pink neck clams (also known as surf clams) harvested from Shelter Island.
In each case, the people who ate the clams experienced classic PSP toxin symptoms — tingling and numbness of the mouth and tongue that eventually can extend into the extremities and then the rest of the body. Once the toxin moves into the body, it can paralyze the heart and lungs, causing them to stop and leading to intensive care treatment and possibly death (PSP deaths were reported in Juneau and Haines in 2010). If people experience these symptoms, they should get to the hospital immediately because sometimes a hospital respirator can save a life.
PSP can cause severe health problems and even death, and there is no antidote. The toxin is not visible, and requires special testing to be detected. It can occur during any month of the year, and the toxin can remain in affected shellfish for as long as two years. There is no antidote to the toxin. PSP generally affects bivalves that filter food when they eat, such as clams, cockles, mussels, oysters or scallops. Crab meat does not carry the PSP toxin, but crab guts can have the toxin since crab eat bivalves.
Southeast Alaska beaches, like most beaches in the state frequented by recreational and subsistence harvesters, are not tested by the state for the PSP toxin. The state does check commercially harvested shellfish for the toxin, but in recent months at least one commercial geoduck season was closed because of the toxin’s presence.
To learn more about PSP, here is an informational page created by the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) after last year’s extremely high levels of PSP toxin were discovered. This page features information about how PSP is formed, what types of shellfish can carry the PSP toxin, basic first aid for PSP symptoms and more.