Nunavut government renews clam warning in Pangnirtung

Health department investigates 15 “mild” cases of illness


Nunavut’s Department of Health on July 19 renewed an advisory dating back to last June advising people not to harvest clams near Pangnirtung.

The advisory will remain in place until the department finishes an investigation into what caused signs of illness to appear in 15 residents between June 24 and June 26.

The department first announced the advisory in Pangnirtung on June 25, after several residents reported similar symptoms after eating locally harvested clams.

“The common factor amongst the people that presented with symptoms was ingestion of clams or exposure to clams,” Dr. Maureen Baikie, chief medical officer of health for Nunavut, told Nunatsiaq News on July 23.

Tests of clams harvested in the area were negative for toxins and bacteria, the doctor said, “however we felt it was important to do a bit more of a detailed investigation.”

The department renewed the advisory as a “precautionary measure,” Baikie said.

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Clams show the strongest link to the illness, “and we want to keep the advisory in place until we do some further harvesting on shellfish and on the water where they were harvested.”

Clam digging season in Pangnirtung usually runs from June to October, and most common after the highest tides.

The advisory’s renewal was timed with July’s highest tides, which were on July 22, Baikie said.

A total of 15 Pangnirtung residents reported swelling of the face, particularly around the mouth, tingling around the mouth and chin, and rashes, some of them itching, Baikie said.

All of the patients reported one or more of these.

“This group of symptoms is a classic for any of the known shellfish toxins, but we feel it’s important to rule it out,” the chief medical officer said. “The symptoms could be allergic, or they could be related to something that could be a toxin.”

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The illnesses reported were mild, Baikie said. None of the residents needed hospital care, and none reported that they were unable to go to work.

The department has also made a new in-depth questionnaire for residents who reported symptoms, with advice from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“We don’t know for sure what the cause of this illness is,” Baikie said. “We’re looking at other exposures like scallops or other food that people have eaten.”

The Department of Health could not confirm any more possible cases of illness caused by shellfish since June.

“We’re actively re-interviewing people now and harvesting some clams and scallops for testing,” Baikie said.

“I realize that clams are an important source of country foods, and that it’s really important that we do our investigation as soon as possible and make further decisions about the advisory.”

Clam digging is not a commercial activity on Pangnirtung, but it is an important local source of food for many in the fishing community, mayor Sakiasie Sowdlooapik said.

“It’s just for local consumption, but it does feed quite a few people in the community,” he said. Fifteen ill residents in a community of 1,800 is a serious concern to him, he added.

“Everybody has to have a healthy lifestyle. Each and every day we drink water and catch food from different sources, and we want to make sure it’s safe and sound for families.” Sowdlooapik said.

“I’d rather be on the safe side, and make sure I’m not consuming something that’s going to affect my health.”

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