Florida city gets new algae-sniffers to research how toxic algae dust might impact human health

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

A team of FGCU researchers began the next phase of research Friday into the potential human health impacts of cyanobacteria – the blue-green algae that periodically blankets area waterways, as it did calamitously in 2018.

Behind the Cape Coral Public Works building, scientists fastened a milk jug-sized metal cylinder to an exterior wall, the first of four air-sampling devices that will spend two weeks sniffing the air to determine how much algae toxin it contains, and where in human lungs it might end up.

Public wants to know about human health impact

During 2018’s algae emergency, worried members of the public questioned officials about human health impacts, but answers were in short supply. FGCU responded to the challenge with a team led by Water School professor Mike Parsons. He got a $5,000 rapid-response grant from the Centers for Coastal Ocean Science to look at how cyanobacteria particles – algae dust – behave once they become airborne.

These one-celled organisms can produce cyanotoxins — potent poisons that can sicken wildlife and humans. The type FGCU initially found is the cyanotoxin microcystin, which research has implicated in liver damage and tumor growth. They later identified another cyanotoxin from their air samples, BMAA, short for beta-Methylamino-L-alanine, which some researchers believe can lead to dire health problems including Lou Gehrig's and Parkinson's diseases.

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With two $9,000 devices borrowed from Yale University, the team sampled the air in a Cape Coral home along the Caloosahatchee, where the bloom was intense, and at Vester Field Station in Bonita Springs, 30 miles away, where there was no bloom.

That initial research used the same kind of sensors as those installed Friday, which simulate the human respiratory system. They showed the toxins could show up more than a mile from their source and make it into the alveoli, the lungs’ air sacs.

“The pores become progressively smaller, from some the size of what would catch in the nasal passages to the smallest ones that would be deep in the lungs,” said Parsons, who Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to the state's blue-green algae task force last year, “and those are the particles we’re most concerned about, because that’s associated with the air/blood exchange. So if there are toxins showing up in those smallest size fractions, that could be the way people are exposed … through the air, then getting in the bloodstream.”

Each unit will filter for two weeks, then around Valentines Day, researchers will ask for volunteers to be nasal-swabbed, urine-sampled and blood tested. “So that’s the human side of it – seeing if it’s possible for people to be exposed and what are the levels we’d been seeing,” Parsons said.

This dry season, baseline run, will be followed by another in May or June, he said. Ideally there’d be samples taken during a bloom, but at the very least, the team will get wet season samples

Money for study split between four universities

Funded with $650,000 in legislatively appropriated grants from Florida Department of Health, the money was split between four Florida universities. The city of Cape Coral provided four different sites for the samplers and purchased new devices.

FGGU is also working with a group from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch, led by epidemiologist Adam Schaeffer, who last year did the same kind of human sampling and will be here in two weeks to do it again.

“The environmental lab team does routine water sampling as well,” Parsons said, “So we’ll be working with them, looking if there’s any cyanobacteria present, if there are any toxins in the water samples.”

Taken together, the data will include water, air and human bodies.

“The idea is we’ll be doing this over several years,” he said. “Right now, the Department of Health only has funding for this first year, so we’ll see if any more funding comes through from the legislature … It’s about time we start intensifying the sampling to really get a sense of what’s going on, so we’re really looking forward to moving forward on this and getting some answers.”