Shellfish poisoning nearly claims victim

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2000

KODIAK (AP) -- A Port Lions man landed in the hospital with paralytic shellfish poisoning this week after eating a handful of clams dug from a beach near his Kodiak Island community.

Tom Nelson, 35, spent Monday night at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center after eating the clams.

Until this week, Nelson figured it was only ''the other guys'' who got PSP.

''I've eaten clams all my life. I tell you one thing -- it's not fun being the other guy,'' Nelson said.

Making the most of Monday's sunny weather and big minus tides, Nelson did what he has done all his life -- harvested butter clams off a beach near the air strip in Port Lions.

After cleaning and steaming about 50 clams, he decided to eat about a dozen for lunch and save the rest for dinner. He'd only eaten two of the clams when symptoms appeared.

''Right away I felt my lips tingling,'' Nelson said. ''But I thought it was all in my head so I tried to talk myself out of it. The next thing I knew my arms and two fingers on my right hand started to tingle, so I went to the health aide.

''Then it was hard to swallow -- I had to drink water to swallow. So, luckily, Island Air was able to pick me up right away.''

Word spread quickly through Port Lions with health aides Ann Squartsoff, Sarah Nelson and Keri Nelson Sherod immediately manning the phones to alert the village's 250 residents.

''We ruined a few suppers that night,'' Squartsoff said.

The Department of Environmen-tal Conservation tested two clams, one from Nelson's haul and one from the same beach. The tests showed 115 micrograms and 134 micrograms of PSP toxin for each 100 grams of clam. The standard for commercial safety is 80 micrograms.

Two people have died on Kodiak Island over the past six years after eating toxic clams and mussels in Old Harbor and from the Sturgeon River area. Clams from the latter site showed a PSP toxin level of 8,532 micrograms.

A 28-year-old man in Kodiak had a close call, losing consciousness and the ability to breathe on his own, after eating raw mussels from Kalsin Bay in 1994. That year, mussel samples taken from Kodiak beaches and Old Harbor contained the highest PSP toxins ever recorded -- 20,606 micrograms in blue mussels, according to DEC.

The PSP toxin, which especially concentrates in the clam's neck, gills, digestive organs and gonads, paralyzes the respiratory muscles of all warm-blooded animals.

Clams, mussels and all other intertidal bivalves contract PSP by feeding on microscopic plankton. The red plankton, or algae bloom, flourishes in the summer months, but clams can remain toxic for up to two years after taking in PSP.

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