Following four outbreaks of paralytic shellfish poisoning on Kodiak Island, Alaska, during 1994, medical records of ill persons were reviewed and interviews were conducted. Urine and serum specimens were analyzed at three independent laboratories using four different saxitoxin binding assays. High-performance liquid chromatography was used to determine the presence of specific toxin congeners. Among 11 ill persons, three required mechanical ventilation and one died. Mean peak systolic and diastolic blood pressure measurements were 172 (range 128-247) and 102 (range 78-165) mmHg, respectively, and blood pressure measurements corresponded with ingested toxin dose. All four different laboratory methodologies detected toxin in serum at 2.8-47 nM during acute illness and toxin in urine at 65-372 nM after acute symptom resolution. The composition of specific paralytic shellfish poisons differed between mussels and human biological specimens, suggesting that human metabolism of toxins had occurred. The results of this study indicate that saxitoxin analogues may cause severe hypertension. In addition, we demonstrate that saxitoxins can be detected in human biological specimens, that nanomolar serum toxin levels may cause serious illness and that human metabolism of toxin may occur. Clearance of paralytic shellfish poisons from serum was evident within 24 hr and urine was identified as a major route of toxin excretion in humans.