Pufferfish Found to Contain Saxitoxin
Recent poisonings in Florida

April 26, 2002

Your lips and tongue tingle.
Your hands are numb.
You have trouble moving.

You have just eaten PUFFERFISH!
PUFFERFISH

Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce
This is what happened to four people in Florida, Virginia and New Jersey who ate fish caught off the coast near Titusville, Florida. All four of these people recovered after several days, but two had to be admitted to the hospital.

Some types of pufferfish contain a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin (TTX). TTX is well known to neuroscientists. This toxin blocks sodium ion channels in the membranes of nerve cells. When sodium ion channels are blocked, a neuron cannot generate an action potential and transmission of information fails. This results in the sensory, motor and respiratory symptoms in people who ingest TTX.

The dangers of pufferfish and TTX are also well known to chefs and diners in Japan. Nevertheless, in Japan, people eat pufferfish as a delicacy called "fugu." Although skilled chefs remove TTX from the pufferfish by discarding the liver, skin and eggs, a few deaths have occurred.

Officials who investigated the recent poisoning by the Titusville pufferfish, however, did NOT find any evidence of TTX in the fish samples. They did find a different poison called saxitoxin. Saxitoxin causes "paralytic shellfish poisoning" (PSP) and results in symptoms similar to TTX poisoning. Moreover, this toxin also blocks sodium channels. Saxitoxin is produced by specific types of dinoflagellates. Clams, mussels and scallops can become contaminated by saxitoxin when they eat these dinoflagellates. Pufferfish may absorb and concentrate the saxitoxin if they eat contaminated shellfish.

So, if you have a craving for some seafood, stay away from pufferfish caught near Titusville, Florida.

UPDATE: On May 16, 2002, the Center for Disease Control reported that a total of 13 people are thought to have been poisoned by saxitoxin after eating Florida pufferfish.

References:

  1. Neurological illness associated with eating Florida pufferfish, 2002 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vol. 51, April 19, 2002


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