1. Opinion

Howard Simon: Facing Florida's public health crisis

An aerial photo shows blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River in Stuart on June 29, 2016. [Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via AP]
An aerial photo shows blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River in Stuart on June 29, 2016. [Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via AP]
Published Apr. 12, 2019

Hats off to U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples, for pressing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies to tell the public what it knows about the threat of toxic blue-green algae.

Finally, a public official is focusing attention on our public health crisis, particularly in southwest Florida. The dead fish that piled up on Florida beaches last year demonstrated the environmental impact of Red Tide and blue-green algae and the dramatic consequences for tourism, businesses and, potentially, real estate values. But it is past due to focus on the public health crisis. While more research is needed, evidence points in the same direction:

• Blue-green algae are laden with microcystins that are a cause of non-alcoholic liver cancer and with BMAA are linked to neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, ALS and Parkinson's. Last year, Drs. Paul Cox and James Metcalf of Brain Chemistry Labs reported that microcystin levels in samples from Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie canal were 300 times the level recommended as safe by the United Nations.

• Blue-green algae produces BMAA, a toxin that is a documented cause of Alzheimer's and ALS. The University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank reported that the BMAA toxin is found in the brains of people with neuro-degenerative diseases. Dr. David Davis, a neuropathologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, reported that monkeys fed BMAA developed early symptoms of ALS. Another study, from 2017, documented that monkeys given BMAA developed the amyloid plaque and tau tangles that are the symptoms of Alzheimer's. Last month, Davis' team reported that detectable levels of the BMAA toxin were found in the brains of dead dolphins that displayed degenerative damage similar to Alzheimer's, ALS and Parkinson's in humans.

• High concentrations of BMAA have been found in the seafood in South Florida waters where blue-green algae blooms occur. Ingestion of BMAA-contaminated food is known to lead to Alzheimer's and ALS.

• Toxins in blue-green algae are airborne: Dr. Elijah Stommel of Dartmouth reported that people living near bodies of water with heavy blue-green algae blooms had a 15 times greater chance of getting ALS. Research by Professor Mike Parsons, a Florida Gulf Coast University marine biologist, found airborne cyanobacteria toxins a mile from retention ponds and three miles from the Caloosahatchee River. A study of air filters near bodies of water infected with blue-green algae along the Caloosahatchee River taken during the heavy blooms in 2018 by Dr. Larry Brand of the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Atmospheric and Marine Science is expected soon.

It is not alarmist to say that the people of Florida — especially people who come in contact with the infested waters or breathe the air nearby, and perhaps all of us who consume the fish and shrimp from Florida waters — are being slowly poisoned. Liver cancer, Alzheimer's and ALS are terminal diseases; the toxins in blue-green algae kill people.

Rooney should not rely solely on governmental agencies and their scientists. While non-government scientists have been studying the causes, health impact and prevention of blue-green algae for years, government, especially in Florida, has been slow to address the gravity of the situation.

The scientists who are actively engaged in this urgent research should be invited to the roundtable that the congressman is planning to share what they know. The roundtable should also focus on urgently needed steps to alleviate the problem. This is a tough issue, with many moving parts and many potentially catastrophic unintended consequences.

Quick fixes ("the Army Corps should stop the discharges;" "send water south") are not possible or have disastrous consequences.

We need to adopt strategies that "prevent pollution at its source," as the Florida Conservation Coalition urges. Because most of the water in Lake Okeechobee comes from the north and west, we need to focus not only on the polluted waters that contaminate saltwater estuaries, but on the pollution dumped into Lake Okeechobee that feed the Lake's blue-green algae — especially run-offs of phosphate and nitrogen fertilizers from dairy and cattle farms and human waste from failed septic tanks.

That requires the political will to impose regulations on powerful interests. But, as the mounting scientific evidence is telling us, failure to do so is slowly poisoning the people of Florida.

Howard Simon, who retired in 2018 as the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, is now coordinating with a team of scientists on a Project to Clean Up Okeechobee Waters.