toxic algae bloom

A toxic algae bloom in southern Florida.
Photo: Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post via AP

Paul Brinkmann reports for that Florida Atlantic University and three other research schools have launched studies this year to test people who live near the coast for long-term exposure to algae toxins.

Public awareness that blue-green algae can be deadly has grown in recent years due to fish kills around algae blooms and even pet deaths. No human deaths have been reported, but algae-related illness has driven people to doctors.

The blooms happen around the state and nationwide, said Adam Schaefer, an epidemiologist at the university’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, in Fort Pierce. “It’s important we do this research carefully and get that information into the hands of folks in the communities that are affected.”

To accomplish that goal, residents on Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts are getting nasal swabs and urine and blood tests to detect signs of the algae toxins — called microcystin in blue-green algae and brevetoxin in red tide algae.

Dr. Schaefer said scientific studies have shown for years that the toxins found in algae are associated with liver damage and liver disease, along with skin rashes, headaches and troubled breathing. “We really don’t have good data documenting the impact over a longer term and comparing that to what is going on in the environment,” he said.

Dr. Schaefer conducted preliminary tests on human secretions during a severe algae bloom in summer 2018. That research found microcystin in the nasal passages of 95 percent of the participants. Of 86 urine samples taken, microcystins were found in three. Dr. Schaefer then concluded that the toxins entered noses after becoming airborne.

The first official results from that study were published in the February issue of the online journal Harmful Algae. Despite the conclusive results of that study, Dr. Schaefer said much still is not known about the impact on human health.
“Just because it’s in the nose doesn’t mean it’s being absorbed in the body,” he said. “The urine shows us what is being expelled from the body. We’re really starting from scratch.”

“We all know blue-green algae is an eyesore disturbing the water and recreation opportunities,” said Howard Voss, chief executive officer of the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic in Stuart, Fla., which works with FAU to conduct human tests. “But does it cause disease? Is it only having an effect on fishing and boats and vacations, or is it really causing long-term health damage?”

Other schools that are studying long-term algae impact with the new state funding are Florida Gulf Coast University, the University of Miami and the University of Florida.

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