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State-Wide Study Seeks To Find Health Impacts of Blue Green Algae on Humans

Scientists with Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute were in Fort Myers on Monday investigating the possible human health effects of exposure to algae toxins.

Researchers gathered blood, urine and nasal samples from locals to test for traces of microcystins, the toxin produced by freshwater cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae.

Adam Shaefer is the director of the study.

“We really just want to look at where they are potentially exposed to these blooms and then relating those back to those specific environmental concentrations so that we’re able to measure and try to build a bigger picture of what’s going on in terms of the ecosystem and human health,” Shaefer said. 

FAU began the study by taking samples from community members in the Fort Pierce area on the east coast. Southwest Florida pharmacist Karl Deigert said his concern for the deteriorating water quality led him to contact Shaefer’s team and have them collect similar data from local residents.   

“I refer to it as the toxic water movement now instead of the clean water movement because that’s what we’ve got here in Southwest Florida,” Deigert said. "The more I dig, the more concerning it becomes and this is what’s led me to be involved and try to arrange this to a benefit to everyone here in Southwest Florida.”

Word of the study was spread on social media. People that have been exposed to contaminated waterways and also those that have not, were encouraged to participate.  

Shaefer said that little is known about the long term impacts cyanobacteria exposure can have on human health.

“This is  just the beginning, its more of a pilot analysis to developing longer term data sets and informing us," Shaefer said. "So we really don’t know a lot unfortunately we are going to have to continue to work through the process. This is such an important issue to South Florida in general, that we also want to make sure that we do our due diligence."

Participants do not receive individual results back, but Shaefer and his team hope to gain get a better understanding of how humans are being impacted by exposure to the toxins produced by the algal blooms plaguing the state.

The study’s findings may take six to nine months to be published after researchers finish collecting samples.

Andrea Perdomo is a reporter for WGCU News. She started her career in public radio as an intern for the Miami-based NPR station, WLRN. Andrea graduated from Florida International University, where she was a contributing writer for the student-run newspaper, The Panther Press, and was also a member of the university's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.
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