Toxic Algae Blooms Now a Year-Round Problem

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Florida health officials are warning of an unusually early outbreak of blue-green algae on the Caloosahatchee River, a popular tourist area on the state’s southwestern Gulf Coast.

Eruptions of potentially harmful algae blooms normally peak during the summer, because their growth is exacerbated by warm weather and the runoff of fertilizer and manure that is more common in the summer months. But this early eruption is another troubling sign of the nationwide increase of the problem.

State Department of Health officials posted the warning about algae on an official state website after tests found the outbreaks. Last week, after the Fort Myers News-Press questioned why no warning sign had been posted at a popular boat ramp, officials said one would be added there and that they would ask the Army Corps of Engineers to post a notice at another location on the river.

Blue-green algae are microscopic organisms called cyanobacteria. They’re extremely harmful to marine ecosystems and, if toxic, can be dangerous for people and pets that come into contact with them.

Health consequences of short-term exposure can include sore throat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and liver damage. Long-term exposure can lead to sperm damage, liver failure, and even cancer. Algae outbreaks, even those that are not toxic, can lead to massive fish die-offs.

No federal or state agency tracks outbreaks of toxic algae blooms. Since 2010, EWG has tracked news reports of blooms, the most reliable way to track them in the absence of federal or state recordkeeping. It’s impossible even for experts to know just by sight whether a bloom is toxic.

Until now blooms have been rare during colder months, but the climate crisis has extended the season. The number of algae bloom outbreaks has increased every year since EWG began tracking them. By midsummer last year, there had been 70 percent more news reports of blooms than in the previous year.

Florida has been especially hard hit by outbreaks, which are devastating to the tourism industry, and in 2018, they prompted then-Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency in seven counties. Water samples taken that year from the Caloosahatchee found levels of microcystin, a powerful toxin produced by cyanobacteria, that were hundreds of times higher than what the EPA considers safe.

Curbing runoff from farms into lakes and rivers such as the Caloosahatchee is key to controlling the growth of these outbreaks, but that requires changes in policy. In the meantime, a more systematic notification policy, with more transparency and speed and less reliance on individuals’ discretion about posting warnings, can help visitors and other users of the bodies of water avoid danger.


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