NORTH NAPLES, Fla. — Not only did the fish carcasses littering the shoreline get to Terry Katz; he also was coughing, sneezing and suffering from a burning throat.
Turns out an unwelcome guest had crashed the birthday he and his twin brother, Chris, were celebrating at Vanderbilt Beach, about 25 miles south of Fort Myers: red tide, the noxious effects of a saltwater algae bloom that come from a single-celled organism: Karenia brevis.
Astonished by the marine carnage, the Katz party took creative action, forming the word, “help” from the casualties.
► Aug. 2: Dead sea turtle count at 400 as red tide could last until 2019
► Aug. 2: What is red tide, and why is it currently roiling southwest Florida?
► July 25: Hundr of sea turtles washing up dead on Florida beaches
Disheartening is a good word to describe summer 2018 in southwest Florida. Water avoidance has become the new normal as governments and scientists warn residents and visitors away from beaches and waterways — not just because of red tide in saltwater but also because a freshwater toxic blue-green algae has coated the Caloosahatchee River and area canals for the past two months.
What this toxic season might bode for residents’ health remains a question.
Short term, the effects of this one-two punch of foul water are fairly obvious: respiratory malaise, headaches, rashes and gastrointestinal distress. Long-term data are scarce, which is worrisome for scientists who study the organisms and doctors who are seeing patients ill from the blooms.
Yet as the dual crises persist, government agencies that oversee public health have left questions about implications unanswered for days stretching into weeks.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention referred questions about the blooms to the Florida Department of Health. The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press began reaching out to Lee County health officials more than two weeks ago before being referred in an email to its state headquarters in Tallahassee, which has not responded to repeated calls and emails.
“The Florida Department of Health is very keen to play down all of these problems from the harmful algae blooms — isn’t it? — because of the effect on tourism,” he said. “It’s stinky, it’s terrible and it really doesn’t do any good for the tourism, but it’s better that people know about it and we start to do something to try to prevent it.”
The toxins also affect people far from the water, as much as 10 miles away, who develop the asthma-like symptoms, Bradley said.
“That toxin carries for miles, and that indicates that these poisons get aerosolized,” he said. “The wind blows them, and they go a long distance.”
On Friday, Lee County health officials advised caution around red tide, whose organisms produce brevetoxins that can affect the central nervous system of fish and other vertebrates, according to a media release. But they didn’t mention blue-green algae, which produces a variety of toxins that can affect the liver, nervous system or skin depending on its specific type.
It also referred residents to the Florida Poison Control Information Center, which handles questions about red tide and algae and has seen an increase in calls recently, information specialist Frank Alcantara said.
“Lots of respiratory trouble, runny nose, headaches, shortness of breath, coughing,” he said. “And every now and then, you get someone with intestinal distress.”
About 120 miles to the northeast on the Atlantic coast, Stuart also is experiencing a toxic algae bloom centered around the St. Lucie River. Both the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers drain the Everglades’ Lake Okeechobee, thanks to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects dating to the 1940s.
Sediment at the bottom of Lake Okeechobee was churned up during Hurricane Irma last year, helping set the stage for this year’s freshwater problems.
Martin Health System, the Stuart area’s major hospital and health care provider, now routinely questions its patients about their exposure to algae, Vice President Miguel Coty said.
“I think it’s our obligation to step up and take a position regarding the health of our community,” he said.
Hospitals in the Fort Myers area haven’t started similar measures, in large part because emergency departments aren’t seeing patients with symptoms that can be traced to the two algae species, said Lee Memorial spokesman Steve Doane.
So far, red tide has troubled more of Dr. Tyler Spradling’s patients than toxic algae, he said.
Lee Health system, which includes Lee Memorial Hospital’s emergency department, urgent-care clinics and primary-care offices, had seven cases of algae problems in July out of almost 33,500 visits, according to its records of diagnostic codes for exposure to harmful algae or its toxins compiled at the request of the News-Press. Only one of those cases came to the emergency room; no cases in any department were reported in July 2017.
A few studies do link some toxins in blue-green algae, which really are a type of bacteria called cyanobacteria that live in water and grow in sunlight and warmth, to grave illness when the algae is eaten, according to a July 2011 report in Discover magazine.
“There’re good reasons to believe it can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS,” amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and better known as Lou Gehrid’s disease, said Professor Larry Brand, who studies phytoplankton at the University of Miami. Phytoplankton are microscopic marine algae.
Brand wants to research what happens to people when the toxins become airborne. His obstacle: the money.
“That can be a more direct route to your brain (than eating it),” he said. “If you breathe these toxins in, they can go directly into your blood system through your lungs, or go directly up the olfactory nerve, directly into your brain.”
Follow Amy Bennett Williams on Twitter: @AmySWFL
Staying healthy during red tide, algae blooms
▪ Avoid areas with active red tides if you have chronic respiratory problems, such as asthma. If symptoms persist, seek medical attention.
▪ Close the windows and run the air conditioner if you live near affected waters. Make sure your air-conditioner filter is clean.
▪ Don’t harvest or eat shellfish from areas with active red tide. But seafood, including shellfish, in restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, and markets is safe to eat. Cook oysters, clams and mussels thoroughly to prevent exposure to Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria in seawater that .
Inland, minimize your exposure blue-green algae by not swimming or walking along the shores of waterways that have the algae. That includes children and pets.
It’s important not to swallow, inhale or have skin contact with water that has algae blooms. Boiling the water doesn’t remove the toxins.