People are dying. Researchers around the world are studying the link between toxins in cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and serious, long-term health risks, and evidence is piling up connecting algae blooms to fatal diseases.
TC Palm today covered a decade-long Ohio State University study linking blue-green algae blooms to death rates from liver diseases. The study singled out Florida’s Treasure Coast, ground zero for toxic algae-laden discharges from lake Okeechobee, as a statistical cluster where anomalously high numbers of people die from non-alcohol-related liver failure.
The Ohio State research, published in the journal Environmental Health, didn’t include 2016’s outbreak on the St. Lucie, but co-author Dr. Song Liang (now at University of Florida) told TC Palm he wants to study it. More cyanobacteria-carrying discharge was released last year than in any included in Liang’s research (1999-2010); residents say it was the first time people on Atlantic beaches risked exposure to discharge-triggered algae; and initial tests found extreme toxicity in 2016 samples.
“We don’t want to end up 20 years from now with lots of folks with liver disease on the Treasure Coast because we ignored the warning signs,” said Dr. Edie Widder of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA). Of course, for communities on and around the St. Lucie and area beaches, it’s already too late. Widder added that vegetables irrigated with water containing blooms--which can be invisible--could carry their toxins to people eating them, exposing an even wider population to the risk.
Co-author Jiyoung Lee, a professor of environmental health sciences at Ohio State, is researching how plants absorb toxins. He told TC Palm that he shares Widder's concern, recommending against using algae-rich water for irrigation
The Ohio State study isn’t new, nor is it the first to explore correlations between toxic algae and long-term, fatal diseases. An amino acid produced by cyanobacteria, BMAA, has been linked in multiple studies with ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s--and the brain tissue of monkeys and dolphins exposed to BMAA show damage similar to those diseases.
This research is well-known in the medical community. Dr. Steve Parr, head of emergency medicine at Martin Health Systems, treated the 2016 cyanobacteria outbreak as a public health crisis. The region’s biggest healthcare provider logged sharp increases in ER visits during the Lake Okeechobee discharges, too, for emergencies ranging from infections to heart attacks.
While medical research continues to show catastrophic health risks in communities exposed to toxic algae, and the news media continue to report on deadly diseases associated with blooms, Florida continues to put people in harm’s way. Even as Sen. Joe Negron pushed the legislature to reduce toxic discharges and the blue-green algae blooms they bring, U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals, and an army of sugar industry lobbyists fought the idea at every turn.
Sugar industry propaganda justified its opposition by calling Treasure Coast residents coastal elites and extremists. But all along they knew that the lake they’d spent decades pumping full of cyanobacteria-producing runoff might be killing people. It didn’t stop them.
Sugar and their political agents continue to resist water management changes to cut discharges and reduce the risk of fatal diseases to people exposed to them. They openly plan to limit and delay the keystone EEA reservoir project they couldn’t quite kill this year. Meanwhile more people will die and more studies will tie those deaths back to pollution and policy the sugar industry is responsible for. And if the scientists are right that crops grown in blue-green algae-tainted water can carry toxins linked to liver failure and neurological diseases, then the sugar industry’s efforts to block the solution to toxic discharges will have knowingly poisoned Florida’s food supply and incurably sickened another generation of Americans, solely in the name of billionaires’ profit. No one should have to die for that.