Algae crisis: What do you do when water is your home?
FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Mikayla Zariske’s new abnormal stinks. And it gives her headaches. But that’s not what worries the Cape Coral liveaboard most about the toxic algae slick surrounding her floating home.
“I’m just really scared about what this might be doing to the baby,” says the seven-months-pregnant Zariske, who stays with her husband, Will, on their sailboat “Hello Sunshine,” moored in the 19-slip Rosen Park marina.
“We’re concerned for the health of our child because we don’t know what really is in this stuff, and the long-term health effects,” he said.
In addition to the headaches, the Zariskes and their neighbors, Zelda and Teddy Montaigne, are having trouble breathing. “It’s like a burning feeling, burning lungs, you can’t take a deep breath, runny nose,” Teddy said.
Such short-term effects of toxic algae-tainted waters are well-documented. The Environmental Protection Agency reports acute problems including:
vomiting and nausea
blistering around the mouth,
Longer-term, though, little is known about the cumulative consequences of the slime that’s blanketed the Caloosahatchee and surrounding waterways for more than three weeks, and that’s what concerns the couples.
Even University of Miami scientist Larry Brand, who’s made a career of studying the different microscopic organisms that cause red tide in saltwater and algae blooms in fresh, can’t say with any certainty what happens to human bodies when algae water vaporizes and people breathe it.
The culprit largely responsible for the Caloosahatchee’s woes is Microcystis aeruginosa, as recently identified by U.S. Geological Survey Barry Rosen. It’s one of many single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria or blue-green algae that can make food from sunlight, as green plants do.
Cyanobacteria naturally occurs in fresh water. But naturally occurring doesn’t mean benign — so are the organisms that cause tetanus and tuberculosis.
Blue-green algae becomes a crisis when circumstances including warm weather and washed-in fertilizers conspire to create “blooms,” or huge growth flushes that can quickly cover waterbodies.
Their bloom plaguing the Caloosahatchee is unprecedented by local standards, although Florida’s east coast endured a similar one in 2016, when Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency, as he did again last week.
The 2016 bloom centered around the St. Lucie, the other canalized river that drains Lake Okeechobee. When the green stuff started showing up there again, Martin County community health leaders joined forces with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Orlando) to ask the Centers for Disease Control to step up its research into toxic algae’s long-term effects.
“It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that exposure to these toxins in the river, is an issue,” said Miguel Coty, vice president of Martin Health Systems, the region’s major healthcare provider, as Lee Health is in this area. “We would see people come into our emergency department, especially those that may be compromised with other types of health issues . having had exposure to the water and having those health issues much worse (so) our position on this is: We’re looking at it from a healthcare standpoint . What we’re saying is that it needs to be addressed as quickly as possible, because it seems to be getting worse, and we don’t know the long-term effects.”
What Brand and other scientists do know is the news likely won’t be good. He calls the cyanobacteria currently blooming “notorious . among the worst of all different kinds of algae.”
The late EPA neurotoxicologist Ken Hudnell called the poison produced by cyanobacteria “among the most potent toxins known, far more potent than industrial chemicals” — more dangerous than strychnine, curare (used for poison arrows) and the nerve gas, sarin. “Swallowing a mouthful of contaminated water could cause serious injury or death due to respiratory arrest or organ failure,” Hudnell testified to the U.S. House of representatives a decade ago.
Or, as Fort Myers environmental consultant Mary Rawl puts it, “One shot glass of this stuff can kill; it’s right up there with cobra venom and ricin.”
A University of Ohio study released last year showed people living in areas with significant blue-green algae blooms are more likely to die from nonalcoholic liver disease than those who don’t. Death rates from such liver disease were nearly twice as high in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties as the national rate during the 12 years of the study
Researchers found a striking cluster — the only one of its kind in Florida — in the four counties that also have a high rate of blooms and deaths.
Locally, though, Lee Health has not seen a surge in potentially algae-related problems, says spokesman Steve Doane. “Fortunately, our emergency departments are not experiencing an uptick in patients with respiratory ailments during this period of algae blooms on the Caloosahatchee River,” he wrote in an email.
The problem is, Brand says, it may be decades before the blooms’ consequences show themselves. For example, he says, “Microcystin can — we think — generate liver cancer, but that takes 10 or 20 years to develop. Neurodegenerative diseases, same thing, takes 10 or 20 years for things like Alzheimer’s to develop. So you’re exposed now, but you don’t realize you’re being exposed to a toxin because you’re not getting any immediate symptoms (so) it’s kind of hard to convince people, ’Hey, you’re doing yourself harm. You don’t see any problems now, but you’re doing yourself harm down the line.”
Brand is fundraising for a study that would clarify cause and effect, but “It’s tough getting environmental funding these days given the political climate in this country, both at the state and national level,” he says.
Meantime, Brand has some simple advice for those who live near the algae blooms: “Stay away from the water.”
But that’s easier said than done for people like the Zariskes and the Montaignes, who don’t have anywhere else to go. Though the four have contacted lawmakers and agencies like the Red Cross and the United Way for help with temporary lodging until the algae crisis passes, so far, none has appeared.
“We love the boating life,” Teddy Montaigne says, “We’ve done it for years ... But if this keeps happening, we’re going to have to move.”
Information from: The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, http://www.news-press.com