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Coming soon: Red Tide forecasts for where the beach air is good — or bad

A slurry fo dead fish, the result of Red Tide, moves out of Clearwater Harbor on the north side of Sand Key Park on last month. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Oct. 1, 2018

The Red Tide algae bloom now afflicting Pinellas County's beaches doesn't just kill fish and other marine life. It also can cause respiratory problems for people.

When the bloom's toxins get picked up by breezes blowing toward land, anyone who inhales them is likely to wind up coughing, sneezing and wheezing. For people who already suffer from respiratory problems, the toxins can produce more severe symptoms.

However, there's no way of knowing in advance which beaches have bad air.

Now local and federal government agencies are working on fixing that problem.

Pinellas County has formed a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to produce a forecast for which beaches to avoid because Red Tide toxins are in the air. According to officials from both agencies, this will be a first-of-its-kind forecast.

"We're excited to see how this comes out," said Kelli Hammer Levy, director of the Pinellas County environmental management department.

BACKGROUND: Your questions about Red Tide's attack on Pinellas County answered (w/video).

A spokesman for the federal agency, Brady Phillips, said the scientists working on the project hope to unveil it sometime this month.

The agency already has a forecasting tool that predicts which counties would have toxin-filled breezes, he said. Now, with Pinellas County workers collecting air samples as well as water samples on its beaches four days a week, the federal agency can use that in making the forecast for specific beaches.

"It produces a forecast every three hours," Levy said.

READ MORE: Clues to combating Red Tide are found in mounting manatee carcasses.

To create the forecasts, they use data collected by satellites to look at the location of Red Tide blooms, and combine that with checks on the wind direction and speed.

The goal is "to produce near real-time exposure levels" for Red Tide's airborne toxins, said Barb Kirpatrick, a harmful algae bloom expert who is executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association, which works with the federal agency.

The results will be posted on a web site run by Kirkpatrick's group. At first, Phillips said, there will be a demonstrator version for Pinellas County officials to use.

"Eventually it will be available for the public to use too," he said.

Their goal, Kirkpatrick said, is to produce predictions for "every beach, every day." If the Pinellas County program is successful, she said, they hope to expand it to other coastal counties as well.

READ MORE: Why is Red Tide so bad this year? Could dust from the Sahara be to blame?.

The Red Tide bloom going on now was first detected last November. It intensified over the summer and crept northward until it covered 130 miles of the coast.

It reached Pinellas County in early September, dumping hundreds of tons of dead fish on the beaches and in nearby waterways, and driving tourists away from the local hotels. Scientists have called it the worst bloom in a decade.

PREVIOUSLY: Red Tide takes toll on imperiled species of birds, but volunteers try to save them.

Studies by Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota have found that the wind-borne toxins from Red Tide can travel up to a mile inland, depending on how strong the breeze is. That means even people who are several blocks away from a beach could be affected.

Generally the toxins make people start coughing, sneezing, tearing up and feeling an itch in the back of their throats. But the effects are so much worse for people with asthma or emphysema that the state Department of Health advises them to avoid Red Tide areas.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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