Experts cover algae, red tide at COTI Conversations
Committee of the Islands President Christine Andrews put it succinctly in her introductory remarks at the COTI Conversations forum on Nov. 14 at The Community House on Sanibel.
“It is remarkable that we need a neurologist to address our water quality issues,” she said.
The neurologist was Dr. Walter Bradley, an international expert on such diseases and their causes. He has linked toxins produced by harmful algae blooms to illnesses such as ALS and Alzheimer’s.
Bradley described the cyanobacterial algae blooms as “guacamole – a thick green sludge.”
“These blooms exist all over the world, as well as in Florida, particularly in summer and in areas of increasing human populations,” he said.
Bradley pointed to BMAA, a neurotoxin produced by the cyanobacteria, as a strong suspect in the onset of certain ALS victims. Studies of an ALS epidemic in Guam show that “it may have been caused by people eating the fruit of cycad trees whose roots had been contaminated by blue-green algae,” he said.
“BMAA got into their brains and produced abnormal proteins leading to degeneration of nerve cells,” Bradley said.
He reported that infected dolphins have been found beached on the east coast.
“They get confused, not knowing where they are going. Their brains have the same abnormalities. Their deaths came from swimming in the cyanobacteria blooms,” he said.
Bradley warned of the aerosolization of toxins that are released from the water.
“It’s amazing how much toxic aerosol is released. Sprayed by the wind, it can be distributed up to 10 kilometers away from the source,” he said.
“If you are living close to the blooms, you are at risk,” Bradley added. “The science and exposures are now beginning to get us worried.”
He noted that high exposure to cyanobacteria has been correlated with “liver cancer and other liver diseases.” Just as HABs can be associated with disease, so can red tide, according to Bradley.
“Red tide toxins, including the brevetoxin, produce respiratory symptoms, asthma and allergic reactions,” he said.
“We need to prevent or mitigate the algal blooms that we are living with,” Bradley’s said. “The question is, ‘How?'”
Co-presenter Dr. Howard Simon addressed that question. Now retired as the longest-serving state director of the American Civil Liberties Union, he is a public policy advocate, especially at the state level, to address the public health threat from HABs.
Simon described the problem of “harmful blooms and red tide as enormously complicated issues with multiple causes and with no silver bullet.”
There’s a lot we don’t know, but the recent science is all going in the same direction, and public policy needs to reflect that,” he said. “We know enough to change the way we talk and think about the problem.”
Simon decried the eight years of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, which “ignored the issues.”
“But the table is now set for a different outcome. Public frustration and exasperation are high, and there is an increasing awareness of the health risk. I also see (Gov. Ron) DeSantis trying to commit to water quality issues,” he said.
Simon recommended community effort.
“We have such a low bar after Scott’s administration,” he said. “I hope we aren’t being lulled into believing that we will now have a change. We all need to work on in the coming legislative session, or nothing will happen.”