Initial SWFL study finds water, air pollutants could cause grave brain disease

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press
Manuel Aparicio IV, a board member of the Calusa Waterkeeper non-profit organization, demonstrates a portable air filter 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.

The good news: A first-of-its-kind field study of Southwest Florida air and water didn’t find widespread cyanobacteria toxins – mostly.

The bad news: It did find several neurotoxins as well as three forms of BMAA, a neurotoxin linked to grave brain diseases.

Two of the forms were in every one of 945 analyses done over five months between last July and November by Calusa Waterkeeper volunteers and analyzed at Wyoming’s Brain Chemistry Labs.

The results were released Monday.

Researchers call the neurotoxins’ presence ubiquitous and concerning.

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

Health policymakers have yet to weigh in. Neither the Florida Department of Health in Lee County nor the state Department of Environmental Protection conducts cyanotoxin air sampling.

Because no study of this kind has been done, the public health implications aren’t yet clear, and more research is needed before they are, says Paul Cox, executive director of Brain Chemistry Labs.  “Are the toxins there? Yes. Are they being airborne? Yes. Are they bad news? Yes,” said Cox. “I’m sorry we don’t have firmer answers (but) citizens are really concerned about this – correctly concerned.”

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.

Though cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, has long been studied, research on its human health effects is ongoing on several fronts. Universities, government agencies, and nonprofits like Waterkeeper all are looking at different aspects.

This effort is the first to sample both air and water on-site with a custom-engineered monitoring device dubbed ADAM: airborne detection for algae monitoring, designed in collaboration with algae scientists, including Michael Parsons at Florida Gulf Coast University, a member of the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force.

Manuel Aparicio IV, a board member of the Calusa Waterkeeper non-profit organization, demonstrates a portable air filter 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.

That acute exposure can make people sick and kill dogs is not in question. Longer-term effects are less clear, but algal toxins have been linked to a number of serious illness, including liver cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and Parkinson's that may take years after exposure to develop.

Also not in question: Inhalation increases the toxins’ potency, exposing them directly to the bloodstream, says Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. Yet there are no federal or state guidelines on exposure, he said.

That’s why his nonprofit teamed up with nonprofit Brain Chemistry Labs to do what the government doesn't: check the air for toxins produced by cyanobacteria.

The study aims to arm the public with basic information on the toxins they may be encountering in their daily lives. "We all have a right to know the human health impacts of harmful algal blooms,” said board president Jim Watkins.

More:Pioneering algae research blooms at Florida Gulf Coast University's Water School

Volunteer scientists collected air and water from eight Lee County locations, from Matlacha to Punta Rassa and up the Caloosahatchee River to Alva, then samples went to Wyoming for pro bono analysis.

It’s important to note that these results are from a period without major blooms – a relatively calm stretch, algae-wise. Had they been sampling mid-bloom the results might have been quite different, says scientist and Waterkeeper volunteer Manuel Aparicio, who led the project to develop the device.

“The goal of our work is to inform the public,” Aparicio said. “We’ve established the method … we’ve set up a program. We’ve got rangers, we’ve got the device (and) we’re going to continue to do this.”

John Cassani, the Calusa Waterkeeper takes a sample of algae from on east side of the Franklin Locks  on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. It will be tested to see if it is Cyanobacteria or blue-green algae.

‘Concerning’ molecule

One neurotoxin that appeared consistently is beta-Methylamino-L-alanine, known as BMAA.

BMAA is a compound with a fixed number of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, said Brain Chemistry Labs scientist James Metcalf. “These atoms can be arranged in different ways resulting in different compounds with the same mass. BMAA has 2 isomers – AEG and DAB – in cyanobacteria with the same mass and numbers of atoms. Therefore, it is important to make sure that you can identify each one separately and we did this in our analyses.”

Dr. James Metcalf processing cyanobacterial samples at the Brain Chemistry Labs in Jackson, Wyoming

Their presence is worrisome because a recent paper strongly associated BMAA with neurodegenerative disease and concluded BMAA “most likely could cause ALS,” Metcalf said. Both of its isomers have also shown neurotoxicity in animal models.

But how much makes people sick is an open question.

“We certainly need to do more air sampling to get a better picture of our airborne exposure,” Metalf said.

In the meantime, “People should avoid exposure to blooms and scums … We certainly need to do more research to understand the risk of airborne exposure and this may influence future policy.”

Cox agrees.

“The scientists are uncertain if the doses are enough to trigger disease,” said Cox. “We just don’t know, and it would be irresponsible of me to indicate otherwise, but I am concerned. “What I don’t want to see is a book that comes out in 10 or 20 years and has a chapter called ‘The Florida Incident.’”