FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Scientists are studying whether red tide exposure impacts human health.
Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute are taking take nasal swabs, blood and urine looking for traces of the toxic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) that’s been plaguing Florida beaches.
They’re studying possible links between algae toxins and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and potentially liver failure. The study is being funded though social media crowd-sourcing.
Harbor Branch epidemiologist Adam Schaefer. Just as the blooms happened quickly, this approach allows investigation to deploy quickly as well.
“This is part of a larger research initiative,” Schaefer said. “We’re looking for people who may have been exposed by living next to the water, fishing, working on a boat, to start to build a picture of exposure … We’re really interested in sampling the subpopulations of people who have no choice — the live-aboards, people who work in a marina.”
Cyanobacteria produces toxins that have a number of health effects in humans and animals ranging from mild cold-like symptoms to neurodegenerative diseases to lethal liver failure. But they’re often unreported or misdiagnosed by public health authorities, the Harbor Branch researchers say. “Despite the significant blooms that have occurred in South Florida, no data exist regarding exposure to these blooms and the resulting concentrations among wildlife or humans. This gap in knowledge is a critical component to understanding the impact of the current algal bloom,” the study’s prospectus says. “The ability to correlate harmful algae bloom concentrations to levels found in coastal residents will provide essential data that can be used when determining public health risks.”
The presence of the toxin in people’s noses doesn’t mean it’s getting in other places in their bodies and making them sick, Schaefer said. “That’s why we do the blood and urine samples … We know microcystin can get in the air, but we don’t know how far it can go and how potent it can be. It’s one of the fundamental gaps in our knowledge about these toxins.”
The study’s accompanying questionnaire will ask about exposure to the algae blooms, which began proliferating after June 1, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began sending polluted Lake Okeechobee water down the Caloosahatchee River. Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson have each blamed the other for the state’s persistent toxic blooms.
Schaefer understands that not having definitive answers can be frustrating, but eventual certainty requires this kind of fundamental information-gathering. “We tell them by participating, they’re really helping not just research, but protecting the health of all Floridians.”
The good news is establishing a baseline is a start, said Karl Deigert, who heads the Matlacha Civic Association and helped coordinate Harbor Branch’s Fort Myers visit.
Deigert has a personal connection to the research.
“I was sick for two weeks with an upper respiratory thing I attribute to being on the river,” Deigert said, “But it would be nice to be able to know if it was from the toxins from six hours of being on the river’s edge, or was it coincidence?”
Their daughter, Zaria, was recently born with health problems he and doctors attribute to Mikayla’s live-aboard pregnancy and exposure to algae toxins, Zariske said.
The Harbor Branch study could help pin down such connections, “but at this point, they can’t say for sure,” Deigert said. “That’s why they’re doing the research — trying to close the loop, (but) the science is still in its infancy.”
Deigert and others have been working to raise money for the research, because “the number of test they will be able to do is very dependent on their funding,” he said. “The more money they get, the more people we can test.” Many locals and nonprofits are chipping in, he said, including his association, which contributed $500, and Captains for Clean Water, which donated $1,000.