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Calusa Waterkeeper’s Florida Water Summit kicks off campaign

By Staff | Jun 26, 2019

For Southwest Florida, summer months can mean heat, afternoon rain and, as Southwest Florida saw all too well last year, harmful algal blooms.

Calusa Waterkeeper’s Florida Water Summit kicked off a four-point campaign Monday night at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater in Fort Myers, to better study the impact of harmful algal blooms on public health.

Attendees viewed the film, “Toxic Puzzle,” a documentary that follows Dr. Paul Cox and his journey to connect BMAAs — an amino acid produced by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), to neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

“The public is just beginning to understand the scale of the problem we face,” Calusa Waterkeeper Executive Director K.C. Schulberg said. “With each passing month, we learn more about the potentially horrendous impact, not just to our environment and marine life, but to the health of our fellow residents. There is urgency.”

A panel discussion followed the movie that included two experts who were featured in “Toxic Puzzle.”

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani began things by touting potential changes to Florida law in regards to water quality testing — with possible changes and stricter guidelines on the horizon.

Dr. Walter G. Bradley, a world-renowned expert in neurology and professor and Chairman Emeritus of the University of Miami Department of Neurology, who is deeply involved in ALS research, was a member of the panel featured in the film.

Dr. Larry Brand, who has a number degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, currently conducts research on harmful algal blooms in south Florida and is a professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami.

Brand, who also was featured in the movie, was joined by retired public health nurse and current Calusa Waterkeeper Ranger Holly Rauen and Dr. Robert Zarranz.

Bradley, who has been working for 15 years on the topic of cyanobacteria, BMAAs and disease, said that steps have been taken forward when it comes to finding out exactly what goes on in our bodies when coming into contact with blue-green algae.

The film “Toxic Puzzle” draws what those experts say is a definitive line between cyanobacteria, BMAAs and neurodegenerative disease such as ALS, Alzheimers and Parkinson’s.

Bradley is encouraged with funding coming forward to help with continued research of BMAAs. As a result of some of that funding, they are able to show that there are clusters of ALS patients in areas where algal blooms and other environmental toxins are present.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a grant where experts are studying Lake Erie in Ohio, where algal blooms are prolific and were featured in “Toxic Puzzle.”

Another grant is allowing researches to determine the incubation period, or timeline as to when people will see the negative effects of BMAAs, said Bradley.

The film states that BMAAs have no immediate side effects, but show up 5, to 10 to 20 years later.

“The real key is still to make as tight a connection as possible between cyanobacteria and these neurodegenerative, and other diseases the more these connections are made, the more such research papers are published, the stronger the connection that is made,” said Bradley. “It’s impossible to actually prove in a patient, that this is what caused it. But the more and more we make those associations, the more and more strong that proof becomes, and that’s what we’re doing. And that’s what we’re doing here in Southwest Florida.”

Genetic make-up, Bradley said, can be a determining factor if BMAAs from cyanobacteria will impact your health.

“The great difficulty is that there probably are 50 to 100 different environmental factors that cause these neurodegenerative diseases,” Bradley said. “There are probably 1,000 different genetic factors, and each one of those genetic factors is probably related to an individual environmental factor. How do you tie those things together? You really need a population data base that involved 1,000-10,000 patients and then you need a database of 10,000 controlled patients. To build that database is extraordinarily difficult.”

Bradley said that those databases are growing with collaborations between the United States and Italy, as well as various states around the country, including Florida.

Brand said that he has spent, and is spending, the second half of his career studying harmful algal blooms, notably in Florida.

Low levels of algae are needed, said Brand, but HABs can make it difficult to pinpoint exactly where toxins are being ingested, due to their “silent” presence.

If a group of people got sick eating seafood at one restaurant on one night, it could be easy to trace 20 people who got sick on the same day and all said that they ate at the same establishment.

“What if those clams had a toxin in them, that did not have any immediate effects?” asked Brand. “But instead led to say, cancer, 10 to 20 years later. Now you have people dying of cancer — different locations, different times — you’d never be able to track it back to that meal of clams 10 to 20 years earlier. BMAA is one of these toxins that does not have any short-term effects.”

Brand said Cox was the reason we even know about BMAAs today as a result of soldiers returning home from Guam after World War II, many of them being diagnosed with ALS years later.

“If it had not been for that, we would still not know about BMAA,” Brand said.

Brand said he has seen BMAA levels twice as high in Florida seafood as found is Guam.

“The really concerning part here is we know that these blue-green algae produce over 1,000 what we call unusual compounds,” Brand said. “Most likely they are toxins. If you are exposed to these blooms of blue-green algae, you are exposed to all of these thousand-plus unusual compounds, and right now we have no idea what their health effects may be.”

Brand noted that the government only tests for microcystin — one of what Brand said can be many unknown toxins in algal blooms.

“If you get your reports back from the government agencies and they said ‘We found no microcystin in the water,’ you should not assume that that bloom is non-toxic.”

Zarranz told attendees that “We know where the tip of the iceberg is, but we don’t know where the bottom is.”

Zarranz said he is working to bridge the gap between cutting edge research and the local medical community.

“I am working on setting up a liaison between Calusa Waterkeeper and Lee Health Care to bring the cutting edge research — some of which is published, some of which is not,” Zarranz said.

He also noted that this is no time for the public to sit idly by, but to make their voice heard.

“We also need to be very, very active,” Zarranz said. “I’m not a real activist at heart, but I think a time has come where we all have to become activists and we need to demand our government take action, and take action now.”

Rauen, who brought a great vigor to her words, warned that climate change and warming waters will continue to contribute to the HABs across the region and the world.

Rauen also said that her former employer, the Lee County Health Department, is not doing its due diligence in “testing, reporting, sharing information or posting warning signs of impaired waterways.”

“This is not acceptable,” Rauen said.

She read from a statement from the Department of Health in New York, “Harmful algae blooms are occurring with greater frequency than just a few years ago. Everywhere. Water bodies with HABs are very likely to see future reoccurrences.”

Rauen said that about 30 percent of HABs have microcystin levels of concern for recreation.

These is also new coding at hospitals that was implemented last October for patients who may have been exposed to HABs. Rauen said to let your doctor or physician know if you feel you have had negative effects due to algal blooms, and to use the coding (Z77.121).

“Data and collaboration are of the utmost importance,” Rauen said.

She called for all medical professionals in the area to become more familiar and educated with the “signs, symptoms and possible tracking, including the latest research, of cyanotoxins and BMAAs.”

Questions from the audience procured many different topics of conversation.

Discussed was the re-flooding of the northern third of the Everglades to help water in Florida Bay, where to get public information and how residents can stay on top of the issue — which included changing up one’s diet.

“A very large amount of people eat a significant amount of BMAA and never die of ALS,” said Bradley. “So what’s the answer? People who go down with ALS have a genetic predisposition and a vast majority of us don’t. What I think the final answer is, do not eat an excessive amount of the things you know are potentially risky.”

A diverse food intake, Bradley said, is a good way to not indulge in too many potentially negative health-effect foods, such as fish that may have been feeding on cyanobacteria in local waters.

“Toxic Puzzle” also noted that amino acid L-Serine can be a potential preventative to neurodegenerative disease.

The second part of the four-point campaign will be Calusa Waterkeeper’s Aug. 5 town hall and the premiere of Schulberg’s documentary, “Troubled Waters.”

The documentary focused on Southwest Florida waters will also be held at Broadway Palm Dinner Theater at 6 p.m.

For additional information, visit www.CalusaWaterkeeper.org.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj