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SafetyAlerts
July 26, 1999

Washington State health officials issue shellfish harvest warning because of high "red tide" biotoxin levels.

OLYMPIA (SafetyAlerts)— State health officials in Washington announced that potentially deadly levels of the naturally occurring marine biotoxin Paralytic Shellfish Poison (PSP) are being found in shellfish in numerous areas from the Canadian border to Steilacoom in Pierce County and in Willapa Bay.

PSP is a natural marine toxin produced by a type of plankton, commonly called "red tide." The variety of PSP-producing plankton found in the Northwest usually does not color the water red. A person who eats molluscan shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels, scallops) that have absorbed high levels of the toxin can become ill within minutes of eating.

The symptoms usually begin with tingling of the mouth and tongue. Severe poisoning can result in dizziness; numbness, tingling, or paralysis in arms and legs; paralysis of the muscles used for breathing; and death.

PSP is not destroyed by cooking. There is no known antidote for PSP toxin. Crab and shrimp do not accumulate hazardous levels of PSP, but moon snails can.

Commercially harvested shellfish are monitored for PSP and not released to the market when elevated levels are detected or suspected. "In conjunction with commercial shellfish growers, local health agencies, and volunteer samplers, we have increased our PSP monitoring," said Frank Cox, biotoxin program coordinator for the state Department of Health’s Office of Food Safety and Shellfish Programs. "Any commercially harvested shellfish undergoes thorough testing for PSP and is safe to eat. However, recreational harvesters must check with our hotline or web site postings to determine the status of the public beaches they plan to visit."

Recreational shellfish harvesters are warned to check whether an area in which they wish to harvest is currently open. Harvesters should also look for and obey warning signs that might be posted on beaches. However, lack of warning signs on a beach are no assurance an area is safe for shellfish harvesting. Contact your local health department’s environmental health division for more information.

In addition, a seasonal closure is in place on all Pacific Ocean beaches and the Strait of Juan de Fuca because of high levels historically found from April through October. Levels of PSP remain safe in Hood Canal, Grays Harbor, and some parts of Puget Sound.

Information on closed harvesting areas can be obtained by calling the Washington State Department of Health’s biotoxin hotline at 1-800-562-5632, or by checking the department’s web site at www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/sf/biotoxin.htm.

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