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The Rooney roundtable — a view from the outside

By Staff | May 23, 2019

Howard Simon

The roundtable convened by Rep. Francis Rooney with federal, state and local officials about the public health consequences of harmful algae blooms (HABs) left many scratching their heads.

But despite frustration over closing the discussion to the public and the slow pace by which government agencies are putting programs in place to mitigate or prevent algae blooms, Congressman Rooney deserves credit for bringing folks together. This is more progress than we have seen in years.

Recent initiatives – the appointment of a new South Florida Water Management District board that will give greater priority to water quality and public health, the appointment of the state Chief Science Officer, securing $200 million in the budget for water quality, and the resuscitation of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force that former Gov. Rick Scott had left dormant – are huge improvements from where we were.

Much of the credit goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis for making a 180-degree turn from the policies of Scott. State policy seems to have gone from providing assistance to clean up the mess to now trying to figure out how to prevent it.

But the lack of information coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was puzzling and disappointing. Were they muzzled or did agency scientists choose to be silent?

John Cassani

Given the increasing scientific research documenting short-term exposure to cyanobacteria to respiratory issues and the risk of liver cancer, and the long-term risk of neuro-degenerative diseases (such as ALS and Alzheimer’s), the CDC’s silence was dangerously uninformative.

The CDC announced a limited study of the impact of aerosolized cyanobacteria on yet-to-be-recruited volunteer Lake Okeechobee fishing guides. We are facing a health crisis requiring urgent action. This is too tepid a response to be called “progress,” and it shouldn’t give comfort that the federal government is working to fix the problem.

What is most disappointing about the participation of CDC officials is that their silence about harmful algae blooms contrasts with what appears on their website.

For example, the CDC’s website displays a Physician’s Reference card stating: “Swallowing water that has cyanobacteria or cyanobacterial toxins in it can cause serious illness” and “When in doubt, it’s best to stay out.”

CDC scientists might have at least informed the people of Southwest Florida of that when they stepped out of the closed-door roundtable.

Linda Penniman

Harmful algae blooms are a world-wide problem. With longer and hotter summers, the next outbreak may be just around the corner.

Can we learn from what others are doing? Lake Erie (especially at the Maumee River in Toledo) has also had a serious harmful algae/cyanobacteria problem. The CDC’s website shows evidence of the agency’s work on Lake Erie HABs with a warning that “Microcystin toxin can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and liver damage in people and animals when consumed.”

The CDC then reports that protocols were developed containing threat levels for water usage for people in the Toledo area.

Any strategy addressing the public health crisis presented by toxins released by algae blooms should start with a threat-level warning. Ultimately, this is about both prevention and equipping people with information they need to make informed decisions about how to protect their health and how much risk they are willing to incur.

When they stepped out of the closed-door roundtable that Rep. Rooney convened to discuss the health threat of algae blooms, CDC scientists could have helped inform our community by mentioning the need for protocols to warn the public about the risks involved in water recreation, eating the fish, or breathing the air near HAB outbreaks of cyanobacteria – just as the CDC reports on its own website.

Howard Simon served as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1997 to 2018. He now directs the Project to Clean Up Okeechobee Waters.

John Cassani is director of the Calusa Waterkeeper.

Linda Penniman is a former Naples City Council member and vice-chair of the Collier County Waterkeeper.