Tag Archives: Washington State Department of Health

With caution, one can avoid the risk of illness when gathering shellfish

If you are planning to gather some shellfish to eat over Labor Day weekend — or anytime for that matter — state health officials urge you to follow the “three Cs” of shellfish — check, chill and cook.

The state’s Shellfish Safety Map shows areas open and closed to harvesting.
Map: Washington State Dept. of Health

At least 10 cases of an intestinal illness called vibriosis have been reported this year to the Washington State Department of Health, all resulting from people picking oysters themselves and eating them raw or undercooked. The disease is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, an organism that occurs naturally and thrives in warm temperatures.

“The shellfish industry follows special control measures during the summer months to keep people who choose to eat raw oysters from getting sick,” said Rick Porso, director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, in a news release. “For those who enjoy collecting and consuming their own shellfish, it’s important that they follow a few simple measures to stay healthy.”

The combination of warm weather, lack of rain and low tides all contribute to the growth of bacteria in oysters growing on the beach.

The state Department of Health uses the “three Cs” as a reminder for recreational shellfish harvesters as well as people who gather shellfish from their own beaches:

  • CHECK: Before heading to the beach, make sure that shellfish in the area are safe to eat. The Shellfish Safety Map, updated daily, will tell you where it is safe to gather shellfish. At the moment, many areas are closed because of paralytic shellfish poison produced by a type of plankton. Unlike Vibrio, PSP cannot be destroyed by cooking.
  • CHILL: Gather shellfish as the tide goes out, so they are not allowed to sit for long in the sun. Put them on ice immediately or get them into a refrigerator.
  • COOK: Cooking at 145 degrees F. for at least 15 seconds should destroy Vibrio bacteria, health officials say. It is not enough to cook them until their shells open.

Symptoms of vibriosis include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills. The illness usually runs its course in two to three days. For information see “Vibriosis” on the Department of Health’s website.

Symptoms of paralytic shellfish poisoning usually begin with tingling of the lips and tongue, progressing to numbness in fingers and toes followed by loss of control over arms and legs and difficulty breathing. Nausea and vomiting may occur. PSP can be a life-threatening condition, so victims should seek medical help immediately. For information, see “Paralytic shellfish poison” on the Department of Health’s website.

Besides health advisories, the Shellfish Safety Map mentioned above also includes the water-quality classification, a link to shellfish seasons to determine whether a beach is legally open along with other information,

Waste gets cleaned up, allowing beaches to reopen

Isn’t this the outcome we were hoping for?

Instead of waiting for the rains to wash human waste out into Hood Canal, some folks went out to the Skokomish River with shovels and bags and cleaned up the waste. See the story we posted online this morning.

The cleanup crew included employees of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Hunter Farms. And they were assisted by fishermen who noticed them working.

“The change is dramatic,” Bob Woolrich of the Washington State Department of Health told me today after visiting the area yesterday. “There is virtually no evidence of human waste.”

Woolrich was involved in closing commercial shellfish beds near the mouth of the Skokomish River in Hood Canal. Up until today, his concern was that someone would step in human feces and then wade into the river. I described in a previous Water Ways entry the health risks created when human pathogens come into contact with food, such as commercially grown shellfish.

Woolrich told me the area had been cleaned up so well that he is no longer concerned about people stepping in waste.

Other observers on the river reported a complete change in attitude among anglers once they realized the consequences of their relieving themselves in the bushes — including the potential that this favorite fishing spot might be shut down.

For a few more details, read the news release from the Department of Health or the one from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Considering the risk of disease along the Skokomish

I guess I’m a numbers freak. When I heard about human waste being deposited along the Skokomish River, my first reaction was to wonder about fecal bacterial counts. What kind of numbers were showing up in the water samples?

Then I realized that health officials were dealing with something different from a typical septic failure or broken sewer line. Numbers were not the issue. Health officials who observed piles of human waste were compelled to close commercial shellfish beds at the mouth of the Skokomish River or face the risk that people would get sick from eating the shellfish.

As I described in a story in today’s Kitsap Sun, some anglers along the Skokomish had been wandering into the bushes to do their business instead of seeking out a portable toilet. Contributing factors may have been too few portable toilets, toilets in the wrong places and even toilets filled to rim.

I had to remind myself that fecal coliform bacteria and specifically Escherichia coli are “indicators” that waste from warm-blooded animals may be nearby. The overriding concern is not with those bacteria. Far more scary are the dangerous bacteria, viruses and protozoa that could be present in human waste — especially among people who are ill and those who are “carriers” of disease organisms.

Water quality tests, which may or may not indicate the presence of human feces, weren’t needed along Skokomish River, not when state health officials found pile after pile of human waste — including diarrhea. There were reports of people accidentally stepping in the waste and then wading into the river.

The list of organisms in sewage that can cause disease is quite long. I’ve always been concerned about people getting hepatitis from shellfish, particularly when people eat them raw.

But Bob Woolrich of the state Office of Shellfish and Water Protection told me that other viruses may be a greater concern because they are more common and highly contagious. He mentioned rotavirus, which infects one in 10 people every year.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea in infants and children. About 500,000 people die each year from rotavirus infections, according to the World Health Organization (PDF 296 kb). Most cases are in developing countries, but other studies indicate that a few dozen U.S. residents die each year from rotavirus. About 2.7 million children in this country come down with severe gastroenteritis from the virus, including 60,000 who become hospitalized. It also causes severe problems for elderly people and those battling other illnesses.

Rotavirus is passed by fecal-oral transmission. The feces of an infected person can contain 10 trillion infectious particles per gram, yet as few as 10 particles may be able to infect the next person. The virus is stable and has been found in estuaries, where viral particles can be concentrated by shellfish.

I could talk about other organisms found in human waste, but I think you get the point. You never want to eat food contaminated with animal waste, but the risks are greater when we’re talking about human waste.

Washington’s shellfish industry has earned a reputation for providing safe shellfish to the nation. State and county health departments play critical roles in maintaining that reputation. Continual water testing provides early warnings of disease risk. And when an illness does occur, the system allows the source to be identified and dealt with quickly.

Given the overall success at preventing waterborne disease in this state, it must be shocking for health officials to discover third-world conditions in a relatively remote area along the Skokomish River.

Yukon Harbor: Another success for Kitsap health officials

Yukon Harbor and beaches to the north and south have been classified as “approved” for shellfish harvesting by the Washington State Department of Health, as I describe in a story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

Map of area opened to shellfish harvesting

Tracking down the sources of pollution — in this case to 51 failing septic systems and 15 “suspect” systems — is becoming routine for the Kitsap County Health District, which worked hard to reopen major portions of Dyes Inlet a few years ago.

Health district officials are always careful to shift the credit to people who live in the affected area. The willingness of the health district to work with people is a major part of the equation. The other part is the number of people who truly care about water quality and fix septic problems found on their property.

It’s been a great partnership through the years: government officials using a heavy hand only when absolutely necessary and property owners stepping up to their responsibility.

Washington State’s Secretary of Health Mary Selecky was complimentary of this system: “The people and programs of Kitsap County continue to produce great results restoring shellfish water quality. The work serves as a model for the region and other coastal communities around the nation.”