OLYMPIC COAST – Levels of a naturally occurring toxin are so high in California mussels on the Olympic Coast that just a few bites of affected shellfish could kill those who consume them, according to the Washington Department of Health.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) is caused by a species of phytoplankton in the water called Alexandrium catenella. While not dangerous to humans alone, the toxins they produce can be concentrated in shellfish and become harmful when consumed by humans or other mammals.

The level at which mussels are too toxic to eat is 80 micrograms of toxin per hundred grams of tissue. Mussels sampled June 1 by the Quileute Tribe for routine analysis on Second Beach have recorded levels as high as 3,601 micrograms per hundred grams of tissue. The Makah Tribe’s samples were 909 micrograms in Makah Bay near Neah Bay and more than 300 micrograms in Neah Bay.

“At those higher levels, a person could die literally after a couple of bites,” said Joe Schumacker, marine resources scientist for the Quinault Indian Nation. The Hoh, Makah, Quileute and Quinault Indian Nation all harvest mussels as part of their traditional diet. The Quinault Indian Nation is awaiting the results of their razor clam samples, but the levels of Alexandrium, determined by their Olympic Region Harmful Algal Bloom specialist, are exceedingly high in their water samples, so it is likely the razor clams will also have high levels of toxin.

Early symptoms of PSP are a tingling of the lips and tongue, which may begin within minutes of eating poisonous shellfish or may take an hour or two to develop. Depending on the amount of toxin a person has consumed, symptoms may progress to tingling of fingers and toes and then loss of control of arms and legs, followed by difficulty breathing. Some individuals have a sense of floating, while others are nauseated. If a person consumes enough poison, death can result from paralysis of the breathing mechanism in as little as 15 minutes. Shellfish that have produced this disease include mussels, cockles, clams, scallops, oysters, crabs and lobsters.

For more information, contact: The Washington State Department of Health – Marine Biotoxin information by telephone, toll free, at 1-800-562-5632.
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