How much algae toxin is in the air? Sniffing device aims to arm residents with knowledge

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

It’s not a good idea to swim in water tainted with toxic blue-green algae, but is it dangerous to live and breathe along an algae-choked water body? Are fishing guides at risk?

Public agencies can't say.

"No, the Florida Department of Health in Lee County does not conduct cyanotoxin air sampling," said a spokeswoman, nor does the state Department of Environmental Protection.

So a local water quality group is stepping up to do what the government doesn't: check the air for toxins produced by cyanobacteria.

Produced by ancient one-celled organisms that photosynthesize as plants do, they are indeed bacteria like salmonella or streptococcus, even though they’re commonly called blue-green algae. Some produce potent toxins that have been linked to grave health problems, including liver cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.

Help wanted:The CDC is ready to study airborne cyanobacteria toxins ... but where are the volunteers?

More on toxic algae:Research shows urea causes blue-green algae bloom under certain conditions in Lake O system

Calusa Waterkeeper has created a first-of-its kind sniffing device that can test the air around blooms for toxins. That DIY ethic has come to characterize the nonprofit, which operates on a slim budget, but packs a board with hefty scientific firepower.

Manuel Aparicio IV, a board member of the Calusa Waterkeeper non-profit organization, demonstrates a portable air sampler he helped develop to check the air for algal toxins during an interview at the W.P. Franklin South Recreation Area Thursday, July 1, 2021.

Members collaborated with each other, picking the brains of other algae researchers to engineer and build the portable toxin sensor, dubbed ADAM for Aerosol Detector for (Harmful) Algae Monitoring.

With a price tag of less than $600, ADAM looks like a cross between a trumpet case and a high-end cooler, with twin latches and a recessed carrying handle. Nestled inside each unit (there are two so far) is a battery-driven air pump, tubing, bottles, gauges and more that attach to a fold-up pole that extends to a head-high (about 5 feet) “breathing zone” from which air is collected, then sent for testing. Wyoming's Brain Chemistry Labs will donate the analysis, which would otherwise be prohibitively pricey.

Manuel Aparicio IV, a board member of the Calusa Waterkeeper non-profit organization, demonstrates a portable air sampler he helped develop to check the air for algal toxins during an interview at the W.P. Franklin South Recreation Area Thursday, July 1, 2021.

Eventually, the results will appear on the nonprofit’s website, calusawaterkeeper.org.

“This is leading edge,” said scientist and board member, Manuel Aparicio, who led the project to develop the device.  “People are starting to look at all aspects of (health risks of cyanotoxins),” he says, and a critical first step is knowing how much is in the air. “So we’re trying to be as sober and objective as possible, because there aren’t any health standards yet,” Aparicio said. “The intention is to measure not just for advocacy, but to get it out to the public.”

Manuel Aparicio IV, a board member of the Calusa Waterkeeper non-profit organization, demonstrates a portable air sampler he helped develop to check the air for algal toxins during an interview at the W.P. Franklin South Recreation Area Thursday, July 1, 2021.

Science is still learning about cyanotoxins, with research ongoing in many quarters. Some of what is known isn’t reassuring, Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani says, especially about inhaled toxins. Even though airborne toxins occur at a much lower concentration than in water at the source of a bloom, inhalation increases their potency.

“It’s more bioactive – like 10 times more bioactive," Cassani said, "because it goes straight to your bloodstream when you inhale it,” unmediated by digestion.

For reasons both legal and scientific, Cassani says his organization will be careful not to frame the results as recommendations or advice. “It would be up to you to make an interpretation. The minute we say something is risky or dangerous, then we’re subject to all kinds of problems," he said. "We’re going to provide the data on the concentration of these toxins, and as we acquire information, that will put it into a better context for risk." The hope: "To help lead the public agencies like the Florida Department of Health to develop risk guidelines."

Bit by bit, scientists from a variety of agencies, institutions and nonprofits are piecing together what Brain Chemistry Labs has dubbed the toxic puzzle.

Manuel Aparicio IV, a board member of the Calusa Waterkeeper non-profit organization, demonstrates a portable air sampler he helped develop to check the air for algal toxins during an interview at the W.P. Franklin South Recreation Area Thursday, July 1, 2021.

Some of what we’ve learned so far:

Yet despite mounting evidence that cyanobacterial emissions are a genuine problem, Florida government agencies so far haven’t ventured to answer some of those concerns. That leaves citizens in the dark on what's in the air and what the risks might be, hence the need to empower people with knowledge, Cassani says.

It’s an effort U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples, who’s advocated for more research into harmful algal blooms, supports. The first bill the freshman congressman introduced was to keep algae watchdogs working even during government shutdowns, and he’s advocated for public/nonprofit partnership efforts.

“Unfortunately, there isn't enough information on the long-term impact of these blooms, but we are witnessing the immediate adverse effects on our environment and community in real-time,” Donalds wrote in an email. “I am thankful that there is more interest in these blooms and the toxins they produce, and I support efforts to assess this issue and spread awareness. It is exciting to see the government and nonprofit organizations take a multi-faceted approach to this critical issue.”