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‘Toxic Puzzle: Hunt for the Hidden Killer’ hits home

August 16, 2018
Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

On screen in the dark theater, a shot of the Baltic Sea came on screen. The water was pea-green in color.

When the shot panned out to show a family playing in the cyanobacteria-filled beach, an audible gasp rippled through the full theater.

It was a sight that hit a little too close to home for south Floridians.

The audience was alive and engaged for the full length of "Toxic Puzzle: Hunt for the Hidden Killer," screened at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater Tuesday.

With coordination from the Calusa Waterkeeper and District 78 Representative Heather Fitzhagen, the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater scheduled a screening of the cyanobacteria-focused documentary a few weeks ago.

Will Prather, theater owner, said he originally planned to host the screening in the theater's smaller room - until the event sold out three days before the showing, with more than 450 people in attendance.

Prather said he was very surprised - but that interest in the topic has been growing as Florida's waters are subject to both cyanobacteria and red tide blooms this summer.

"It's exploded in the past few weeks," he said. "I turned away 100 people in the last hour (before the showing)."

Tickets were $10; proceeds are being donated Calusa Waterkeeper and Captains for Clean Water.

Waterkeeper Executive Director KC Shulberg said he's planning to have another showing in Naples, based on the high demand.

The documentary was produced by Bo Landin, a Swedish biologist and videographer. It focused on the health risks of contact with a toxin produced by cyanobacteria, an amino acid called beta-methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA. Landin follows the research of Paul Cox, an ethnobotanist who found a potential connection between the neurotoxin BMAA and diseases like ALS and Alzheimer's. Cox traveled the globe, finding cyanobacteria throughout the world, including in the desert of Kuwait, inside plants in Guam and in the rivers of Australia. Stuart and Lake Okeechobee got a mention for the 2016 blooms, too.

The cyanobacteria present in the dust of Kuwait is believed to be linked to the spike in American military members who developed ALS after returning from conflict in the area in the 1990s. Researchers in the documentary had also found "hotspots" of neurodegenerative diseases like ALS where there were toxic cyanobacteria blooms.

During the segment about Stuart and Lake Okeechobee, Cox said he contacted Martin County commissioners for a public meeting about the health risks - but that no health officials attended. He said something "political" was blocking public health awareness, and cheers arose from the theater crowd.

After the film, Director of Natural Policy for Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, Rae Ann Wessel, led a Q&A panel discussion with John Cassani, Calusa Waterkeeper, and three researchers featured in the film: Dr. Walter Bradley, Dr. James Metcalf and Dr. Larry Brant.

Questions were collected from the audience - who cheered when the researchers said something they agreed with.

Many questions related to the presence of BMAA in Florida - but the toxin isn't specifically tested for here. Bradley said some "hotspots" of ALS have been identified in Florida; the 2016 blooms tested with low ranges of BMAA.

BMAA is a different toxin than microcystin, which is tested for and is prevalent in Florida cyanobacteria blooms. There are thousands of species of cyanobacteria, and they can coexist in the same water body.

"We've had two blue-green algae blooms in two years perhaps the most toxic, pervasive red tide since 2006," Cassani said. "We should have learned more from the 2016 bloom. I hope we can learn from this."

Another question was if people should be asking their doctors for any specific tests related to cyanobacteria, but the answer was no. It can take a long time for ALS to become present.

Others asked if the fish in Florida was safe to eat - and if it could contain BMAA.

Metcalf said some species accumulate BMAA, especially blue crab in Maryland, and some fish had tested positive for BMAA in Florida Bay and the Caloosahatchee. But, it's still unknown how long BMAA could stay in the fish's system or how high levels of BMAA need to be to affect people.

Killing or diminishing cyanobacteria was another common thread. But Brand said trying methods to kill cyanobacteria would prove difficult, as it's a tough bacteria and what could kill it would probably kill other species of organisms, too. Also, when cyanobacteria dies, it re-releases the nutrients it fed upon back into the water.

Brand said Lee County's pilot program of sucking up the cyanobacteria mats in canals could be a viable solution, but only on a localized scale.

"The high concentrations in canals, that might make sense to suck up a small area," he said. "But a large scale area, no."

The four panelists agreed: the best way to stop the blooms is to stop the nutrient loading in the water. Brand said more regulation was needed - or current regulations needed to be enforced more stringently.

"You really need to stop nutrients at their source," Brand said.

At the end, Wessel allowed each to make a few points to the audience.

All four's advice to everyone about cyanobacteria? Not to panic, but to become educated, and:

"Don't swim in green, mucky algae," Bradley said.



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