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Confluence of red tide and blue-green algae — a dire warning

By Staff | Aug 4, 2020

PHOTO PROVIDED Eve Samples

The scientists at Brain Chemistry Labs have sent the people of Florida another warning about the health threats posed by toxins in our waters – especially when red tide co-exists with polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

Brain Chemistry Labs is a research institute in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that has made groundbreaking contributions linking toxins in blue-green algae (particularly BMAA) to neuro-degenerative diseases, including ALS and Alzheimer’s disease. This work was dramatically chronicled in the documentary “Toxic Puzzle.” Their scientists spend considerable time in Florida – because they go where dangerous health threats exist.

The latest study, published in Neurotoxicity Research, documents the health threat from the perfect storm of 2018: cyanobacteria from nutrient-rich waters released from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee River at the same time one of the worst outbreaks of red tide in the state’s history gathered along the west coast.

It’s scientifically improbable that red tide and blue-green algae would co-exist in the same waters. The former blooms in saltwater; the latter in freshwater. Yet the massive, unnatural discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee in 2018 pushed polluted freshwater to the coast, and toxins from the two blooms commingled.

The Brain Chemistry Labs research paper calls for more monitoring to understand the risk of exposure to co-occurring bevetoxins (in red tide) and microcystin and BMAA (in blue-green algae).

PHOTO PROVIDED Howard L. Simon

That brings us to the question of how to prevent toxic blooms from being intentionally discharged into our estuaries, where they could again mix with red tide.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the difficult assignment of maintaining water levels in Lake Okeechobee to ensure the Herbert Hoover Dike encircling the lake does not overflow. Water must be periodically released from Lake Okeechobee – but the schedule the Corps has used to store and release water has prioritized sugar farms south of the lake over the health and safety of residents who live near the estuaries where waters laden with toxic algae blooms flow.

Sending more lake water south during the dry season (when toxic algae blooms are less likely) would lower the lake levels before the rainy season, thereby reducing the risk of wet-season discharges to the estuaries (when toxic algae is more likely). But sugar companies have opposed lower lake levels in the winter months when they rely on Lake Okeechobee as a water source for crop irrigation.

The Corps must end its resistance to the mounting evidence of serious long-term health threats from toxic algae and do everything it can to avoid discharging water laced with harmful algal blooms to the populated communities along the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

To preserve the Florida lifestyle we cherish, dependent as it is on the quality of our water, and to protect the health of our families, policy-makers must effectively tackle this urgent problem.

That means addressing pollution at its source: polluted waters flowing into Lake Okeechobee from excess use of fertilizers, biosolids, leaky septic tanks, broken sewage treatment plants, stormwater and farm runoff and human waste from over-development.

It also means overhauling the way Lake Okeechobee is managed.

Until lake management and the pollution of our waters are effectively addressed – and by more than the half-measures trumpeted by the Legislature and the governor from the last legislative session – serious public-health threats will persist. Think of exposure to toxic waters like smoking: it doesn’t mean you will get lung cancer or seriously ill, but it certainly increases your risk.

This crisis didn’t happen overnight, so effective solutions will take time – once the policy-makers find the political will. Lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis would be wise to listen to the guidance of Florida’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, which issued a series of helpful recommendations last year. Unfortunately, the Legislature ignored most of them.

It’s been almost two years since the worst confluence of red tide and toxic blue-green algae in Florida’s history. Yet public health advisories remain inadequate, and pollution that causes toxic blooms has not been sufficiently curtailed.

At the very least, we should expect our government to have a program in place to warn us when our waterways are not safe.

Someone, some agency, needs to step up to take on that responsibility.

Eve Samples is executive director of the Friends of the Everglades.

Howard L. Simon is president of the Clean Okeechobee Waters Foundation.