Human health heads up the agenda at Friday's blue-green algae task force meeting
Public health is first on the agenda at Friday’s blue-green algae task force meeting, the group of scientists’ fourth since Gov. Ron DeSantis reactivated it.
Neither of the two agencies slated to update the six-member task force, chaired by FGCU Professor Mike Parsons, responded to repeated requests for information by press time.
The meeting will be at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
The News-Press asked the Florida departments of health and environmental protection to outline the data and recommendations they’d bring to the table. Neither immediately did in any detail, but Tammy Yzaguirre, spokeswoman for the Department of Health in Lee County, wrote in an email that a representative from the department's bureau of environmental health will be presenting information on onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems.
Lee's department also "encouraged blue green algae exposures be captured via ICD 10 coding (the standard way healthcare providers list diseases)," but "Any research and statistics will come from the bureau level in Tallahassee, as that is where the data is being reported and collected," she wrote.
Public interest in the potential health effects of the algal toxins remains high, especially after last year’s economically and environmentally catastrophic blooms.
Lee Health and Florida’s Poison Control center have told The News-Press they’re collecting data on reported cases of exposure to algal toxins and sharing it with the health department.
"Our data are used to monitor the effects of the blooms and to establish the need for public education (and) messaging," said poison control center epidemiologist Wendy Stephan. "The DOH has access to our call records and we communicate with leaders on this issue routinely during bloom periods."
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Though researchers are scrambling to find answers (and funding), careful science is slow going. Complicating matters is the fact that in Florida, algae toxins are an unregulated contaminant, said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani, who’s advocating to change that.
He hopes the task force will add its voice of authority and back the nonprofit’s recommendation that Florida adopt safety limits for recreational exposure to blue-green algae toxins.
Waterkeeper has joined with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation to petition DEP to adopt pollution limits for cyanotoxins. Establishing water-quality criteria could protect people who boat, swim and fish on Florida’s waters from recreational exposure to dangerous toxins by warning them once levels became unsafe.
Currently, “there’s a huge gap in appropriate public health risk notification,” said Cassani, “so I just hope the task force will see the value in doing this.”
“I cannot imagine why they would not recommend adopting the criteria,” he said. “I just can’t for the life of me understand how they would be opposed to that.”
Cyanotoxins have been linked by some researchers to liver and neurodegenerative diseases.
Parsons’ research, which he hopes to continue, showed that the toxins can become airborne, travel at least a mile inland and penetrate into the deepest levels of human lungs.
The task force is also scheduled to discussion research gaps and needs and stormwater management, including a review of which agencies regulate it.