provided to Santiva Chronicle
Committee of the Islands President Christine Andrews put it succinctly in her introductory remarks at the ‘COTI Conversations’ forum, held Nov. 14 at the Community House. “It is remarkable that we need a neurologist to address our water quality issues,” she said.
The “remarkable” neurologist in question is Dr. Walter Bradley, an international expert on such neurological diseases their causes. He has linked toxins produced by Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) to such neurological illnesses as ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] and Alzheimer’s Disease.
To a sizable group of COTI members, Bradley described the cyanobacterial algae blooms, which have recently devastated Southwest Florida’s coast line, as “guacamole—a thick green sludge. These blooms exist all over the world, as well as in Florida, particularly in summer and in areas of increasing human populations,” he said.
Bradley pointed to BMAA [β-Methylamino-l-alanine,] a neurotoxin produced by the cyanobacteria, as a strong suspect in the onset of certain ALS victims. Studies of an ALS epidemic in Guam show that “it may have been caused by people eating the fruit of cycad trees whose roots had been contaminated by blue-green algae,” he said. “BMAA got into their brains and produced abnormal proteins leading to degeneration of nerve cells.”
He reported that infected dolphins have been found beached on the east coast. “They get confused, not knowing where they are going. Their brains have the same abnormalities. Their deaths came from swimming in the cyanobacteria blooms,” he added.
Bradley warned of the aerosolization of toxins that are released from the water. “It’s amazing how much toxic aerosol is released. Sprayed by the wind, it can be distributed up to 10 kilometers away from the source.
“If you are living close to the blooms, you are at risk,” he said. “The science and exposures are now beginning to get us worried.” He noted that high exposure to cyanobacteria has been correlated with “liver cancer and other liver diseases.”
Just as HABs can be associated with disease, so can red tide, Bradley reported. “Red tide toxins, including the brevetoxin, produce respiratory symptoms, asthma and allergic reactions,” he said.
“We need to prevent or mitigate the algal blooms that we are living with,” he concluded. “The question is “how?”
Bradley’s “Conversation” co-presenter Dr. Howard Simon was on hand to address that question. Now retired as the longest-serving state director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Simon is a public policy advocate, especially at the State level, to address the public health threat from HABs.
Simon described the problem of “harmful blooms and red tide as enormously complicated issues with multiple causes and with no silver bullet. There’s a lot we don’t know, but the recent science is all going in the same direction, and public policy needs to reflect that,” he said. “We know enough to change the way we talk and think about the problem.”
Simon decried the eight years of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, which “ignored the issues,” he said. “But the table is now set for a different outcome. Public frustration and exasperation are high, and there is an increasing awareness of the health risk. I also see [Gov. Ron] DeSantis trying to commit to water quality issues.”
Simon recommended community effort. “We have such a low bar after Scott’s administration,” he said. “I hope we aren’t being lulled into believing that we will now have a change. We all need to work on in the coming legislative session, or nothing will happen.”
Recommendations brought up during the discussion include addressing the problem at its source and emphasizing prevention strategies. During its upcoming session, the state legislature should strongly consider implementing stronger regulations on biosolids; upgrading sewage treatment plants; enforcing agricultural compliance with best management practices; ending the continued reliance on septic tanks; and strengthening regulations on the use of fertilizer. Most important however, are immediate alerts to the public about the risks of harmful algal blooms.
The audience’s reaction to the presentations of Bradley and Simon was immediate. As one COTI member said, “What can we do, and what can COTI do?”
“When our state representatives are local, we can go see them—talk to them, one on one,” Andrews said, adding, “Let’s do this!”