FGCU research released Friday shows airborne cyanobacteria toxins can travel more than a mile inland, raising questions about health consequences for those exposed to the region’s recent massive blue-green algae blooms last year.
Air samplers found two blue-green algae toxins – microcystin and BAMA – at the university’s Buckingham complex, said lead scientist Mike Parsons, a professor of marine biology. Both have been linked by some scientists to grave health problems, including liver cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.
The devices previously found them at a Cape Coral canal-front home and at the university’s Vester Field Station in Bonita Springs, in particle sizes able to deeply penetrate human lungs. The initial studies were done in September and October, as last year’s virulent bloom was waning. Ideally, they’ve have started earlier, Parsons said, but it took time to find partners and funding.
More research is needed to understand the implications. “We have to be cautious, because we’re talking about liver toxins, neurodegenerative toxins, so we have to treat this in a serious manner,” Parsons said. “It merits further study. Right now, it doesn’t appear to be at a high enough level to be a concern, but we’re not 100 percent sure.”
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The pilot study, a cooperative effort between FGCU and Yale, with help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, initially sampled air in Cape Coral, where there was a thick bloom, and in Bonita Springs, where there wasn’t. Yet the toxins appeared in both places.
“So that had us scratching our heads a little,” Parsons said. “Out next step was to see if we could get away from any water source of toxins … to go as far inland as we could – away from any significant waterbody.”
In Buckingham, “We were at least a mile away from any retention ponds, and three miles from the Caloosahatchee,” but over 28 days, the devices still picked up the toxins.
“That probably indicates there’s naturally occurring background levels of toxin in the air,” Parsons said, “from whatever naturally occurring sources there are.”
The next step? Study the air in multiple places, multiple times when blooms happen again.
“We’re going to be pursuing funding to intensify our sampling and analysis,” Parsons said. “And we have to couple this with epidemiological studies in the future to see what this exposure represents in terms of a human health risk.”
He plans to meet with researchers from Florida Atlantic University, which has been testing people for algae toxins, as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Cape Coral within the next few weeks to talk about collaboration.
Meantime, Parsons urges continued caution. “Just like with red tide, microcystis is still out there. There are still blooms in the river. It’s still in the lake, so it didn’t go away. It’s there. Please don’t have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude.”
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