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Troubled waters

By Staff | Aug 6, 2019

Troubled waters – now there’s an understatement.

Calusa Waterkeeper held a world premiere of its documentary “Troubled Waters; Public Health Impacts of Harmful Algal Blooms” Monday at a packed Broadway Palm Dinner Theater in Fort Myers. The nonprofit also hosted a question-and-answer panel made up of prestigious experts in the medical and research field, many of whom who were featured in the film, after the viewing.

As the film opened with solemn music playing over droves of de-ceased marine life covered in cyanobacteria across the region, Dr. Walter Bradley, a world-renowned expert in neuromuscular diseases and chairman emeritus of the University of Miami Department of Neurology, spoke over the images and posed the question: what is going on in our waters?

The film saw residents of Southwest Florida give testimonial on last year’s toxic blue-green algae catastrophe, as well as expert opinion of several medical and research experts.

One of those experts, Dr. Paul Alan Cox, has been instrumental in connecting BMAA — an amino acid produced by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) — to neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

Cox was named one of TIME Magazine’s 11 “Heroes of Medicine” and has been cited more than 13,000 times in scientific journals. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

“We’ve been studying carefully these waters now for three years,” Cox said. “And we see a pattern of pulses of cyanobacteria.”

Cox said that last year, residents in the area were surrounded by a “toxic vice” thanks to the dramatic red tide event on top of algal blooms.

Cox said he believes that the algae fed and fueled the lengthy red tide outbreak the area experienced months ago.

“We’re convinced in Jackson Hole (Wyo.) that the pulse (of cyanobacteria from Lake Okeecho-bee down the Caloosahat-chee River) is actually feeding red tides in the ocean,” said Cox.

Cape Coral residents Jason and Natalie Pim were featured in the movie. The algae got so bad at their waterfront home that they went and stayed with family, citing a nauseous feeling when the odor began creeping into their house.

One Fort Myers resident who lives on a boat said he was only prescribed inhalers to help with breathing and otherwise dismissed.

The potential of having harmful airborne toxins that we unknowingly breathe in is at the forefront of study, and how far it may travel due to wind.

As of now, the answers are unclear.

“The question is open,” said Cox. “It appears there’s a link between the veterans in the Gulf War and a subsequent tripling of ALS. But in terms of people here, we just don’t know enough yet.”

BMAAs impacted a group of soldiers returning home from Guam after the Gulf War, which is the major reason we even know of them today, experts said.

The documentary’s experts said that they are working to better understand cyanobacteria and the potential health effects down the line and that municipalities need to do a better job of getting information out to the public.

“I think the two most important things going forward are protection and prevention,” said Dr. Howard Simon, who retired last year as the longest serving state director of the American Civil Liberties Union — having served 23 years in Michigan and 21 years as Florida director. “People need to have enough information to protect themselves and their families from going in the water — near the water. The state really is falling down on the job. The state should be required to post warnings when it’s dangerous to go in the water.”

Making a change is what all panelists and experts alike agreed is what needs to happen: a change in policy, a change in practices, a change in awareness.

Dr. Robert Zarranz, a member of the panel and who has private practices in Napes and Miami, said the unknown is dangerous and the education of this topic is paramount across Florida.

New medical codes have also been developed to help patients and doctors better understand each other and build a database for patents suffering from symptoms of blue-green algae, such as watery, itchy eyes, shortness of breath and coughing.

Many residents complained that their doctors would not listen to their concerns about being exposed to blue-green algae, to that, Zarranz had a simple message: “Go to another doctor.”

A key component to public safety is prevention, said Simon.

“There has to be some kind of prevention program of changing policies,” said Simon. “It’s no secret where the problem comes from, it comes from nutrient loading into Florida fresh water; nitrogen and phosphorus. Human behavior has intensified blooms. Now it’s up to citizens to put the pressure on their legislators to change policies. We can change policies that address blooms and prevent it from happening in the future.”

Calusa Waterkeeper has also released a “call to action” for the public to urge political leaders to take 10 actions that will put law makers on the right track to clean water.

Cox said he is greatly encouraged by the residents of Southwest Florida and their passion for the issue.

“I’m thrilled that we have hundreds of people here, just citizens who are deeply concerned about water quality,” said Cox. “What touches me the very most is the fishing captains present here. They care deeply about clean water. I’m very optimistic. I think the citizen concern here can be translated into policy. If anybody in the world can do it — you have the right universities, the right scientist, the right activists, the right organizations — you’ve got all the pieces in place. They’re coming together. I think you’re going to solve this problem.”

Members of Calusa Waterkeeper will be able to view the documentary online.

For more information and membership, visit www.CalusaWaterkeeper.org.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj