CDC needs more volunteers to study how toxic algae enters the body, affects organs
INDIANTOWN — Tim Murr wore a little blue whirring machine holstered to his waistband for six hours Thursday as he went about his daily business. A plastic vacuum tube snaked up his torso and out the top of his T-shirt, sucking in the air he breathes.
The air-quality recording device could be one of several keys in a federal study to determine how people's health is affected when they breathe microcystin and other toxins from cyanobacteria, more commonly called blue-green algae.
Murr was one of seven volunteers who showed up at the Indiantown YMCA Thursday — plus four in Clewiston — to participate in the first phase of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's federal study on the human health effects from this summer's toxic algae blooms on Lake Okeechobee and connected waterways.
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Scroll down for information on how to participate in the CDC study.
Researchers are trying to determine how algal toxins can enter our bodies through the air we breathe, and how they can alter our lungs, liver and skin.
Though focused on Lake O, the findings will apply to people living, working and recreating around any waterway polluted with toxic algae, including Blue Cypress Lake in Indian River County, which had a highly toxic one in 2018.
Murr said he read a TCPalm article last week about the CDC postponing its study from July 15 to July 22 for a lack of volunteers, and figured he'd be a good candidate.
A resident of J&S Fish Camp in Okeechobee, Murr's house is less than a mile from Lake O's eastern shore. The 68-year-old is a long-distance runner who spends over two hours most days running near canals and waterways.
In June, he kayaked through a floating, coagulated mat of algae.
"It was really, really nasty," said the Florida resident of 21 years. "I stepped up (for the study) because I wonder how it could be affecting some people. I think it's probably not good, but we should find out scientifically."
Here's what the CDC study involves
Murr and other volunteers were screened about their vital signs, including blood pressure and any looming symptoms. They were asked questions about their medical history and whether they live, work or play near areas experiencing algal blooms.
They gave samples of blood, urine, nasal swabs and performed a lung function test to record how well they were or weren't breathing. Tests on these samples will show whether volunteers inhaled toxins, urinated them out or stored them in their liver.
"When you inhale toxins, they can go to different places in the body," said Olena Mahneva, a laboratory adviser for Florida Atlantic University's Clinical Research Unit. "They could affect a lot of organs."
Volunteers left the testing site, but wore an air sampler for 4-6 hours to record the air quality entering their nose, mouth and lungs. They returned in the afternoon to drop off the device and undergo more health screenings.
They'll return four more times throughout the course of the study to repeat the process, Mahneva said.
Another volunteer is Terry Scott, a retired industrial mechanic who worked for U.S. Sugar Corp. for 34 years. The 64-year-old grew up in Indiantown and now lives along the Okeechobee Waterway in western Martin County.
Scott is outside most days, mowing lawns a few hours each day. He said he sees the algae on Lake O and in the Okeechobee Waterway at least once a week when there's little wind and the air is hot. The waterway includes the Caloosahatchee River, St. Lucie Canal (C-44), Port Mayaca west of Indiantown and W.P. Franklin east of Fort Myers.
Scott's wife's friend recommended the study to him because he lives near the Port Mayaca Lock & Dam, where easterly winds cause lake algae to accumulate.
"We go out and look at it when it piles up and pushes against the locks," he said. "I don't care if it's a mud puddle. In three or four days, it's gonna get green algae on top of it."
Scott said he participated because he's interested in the toxins' effects, not only on people but on wildlife. He said algal blooms are worse now than when he was a child.
"It was nothing like what we're seeing now."
Lake Okeechobee releases foul waters
Lake O is polluted with stormwater runoff laden with fertilizers from farms and Orlando-area development. Algae gorges on the nitrogen and phosphorus, then blooms.
When excess water is released to the east coast, it can carry toxic algae to the St. Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean. Discharges to the west coast foul the Caloosahatchee River and Gulf of Mexico, and can feed red tide blooms.
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence about how exposure to algal toxins affects health, said Denita Jackson, an FAU clinical research coordinator who led the study Thursday.
A 2018 toxic algae bloom in the St. Lucie River, for instance, sent people to the hospital with persistent coughs, sore throats, trouble breathing and red, watery, irritated eyes.
BMAA, another toxin found in algae, can trigger neurological diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's. Dogs in Stuart have even died after tests showed toxins in their urine and liver.
But more empirical data is needed to better understand the toxins, Jackson said.
So the CDC is spending $1.6 million on the study, which includes five separate research days for 150 people around the Lake O watershed, including Indiantown, Clewiston, Stuart and Cape Coral.
Twenty-six volunteers have completed the first phase. Among the 121 people who contacted the CDC about participating, 79 have qualified for the study, said FAU nursing professor Shirley Gordon, who's helping to lead the research.
"We still need more volunteers," she told TCPalm.
The study coincides with the algal bloom season, which typically runs March through October. A bloom stretched 140 square miles of Lake O Thursday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Cyanobacteria Index.
That's about the size of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
A Port Mayaca algae bloom contained 0.3 parts per billion of the toxin microcystin on July 1, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection data updated Thursday. At 8 parts per billion, the toxin makes water too hazardous to touch, ingest or inhale for people, pets and wildlife, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We know that the toxins being released from blooms are actually causing some health issues. That we do know," Jackson said. Until more data is measured and the affects understood, she said, "It's best to stay away from waters whenever you see blooms."
To join the study or get more information
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Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter covering issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and give him a call at 772-978-2224.