Florida's toxic algae crisis: Toxins found in air concern researchers

Governor DeSantis ran on the promise of protecting our environment. Since his inauguration in January, DeSantis has ordered significant changes to improve water quality and has emphasized environmental protection as a top priority. 

Environmentalists and scientists applaud his efforts, particularly in light of new research that suggests the toxic water crisis may be more extensive than previously thought. 

Floridians are well aware of the toxic blue green algae – known scientifically as cyanobacteria – that has plagued Lake Okeechobee and South Florida’s inland waters. We know what is causing it: Florida polluted the water with fertilizer and leaking septic tanks. It fed cyanobacteria that emit toxins and turns the water green. 

Scientists have warned it can cause liver damage, and possibly brain damage. 

"If you see a bloom of cyanobacteria, you don’t want to go swimming in it. You don't want to eat any of the seafood in it," said University of Miami marine scientist Dr. Larry Brand. 

IN DEPTH: Blue-green slime and red tide: A look at Florida's water crisis

We’ve seen the toxins sicken and kill dogs that drank from the polluted St. Lucie River. But there's something else we can't see that is raising concerns among researchers.

Dr. Mike Parsons is leading a series of air experiments at Florida Gulf Coast University. The initial findings are alarming because he found the toxins within the polluted water also drifting through the air in southwest Florida. 

“When I first saw that, I was thinking, ‘Uh oh.’ I said, ‘This is concerning because we’re seeing it in the air,’” Dr. Parsons warned. “It means people can be exposed to toxins through the air.”

Alex and Misty Aydelotte had a feeling. Their poodle died last year from drinking the toxic river water.

Alex joined a Florida Atlantic University study. Around 70 people exposed to the toxic blooms joined the same study.  

The initial findings, which are under review, showed they all had liver toxin in their noses.

"We did the testing, he came back positive for the cyanobacteria in his nostrils,” said Misty. “Everybody came back positive.”

“They did say everyone who was tested was positive,” Alex added.

Researchers at Ohio State University previously tied a cluster of toxic blooms and a cluster of non-alcohol related liver disease in people, which brings us back to Dr. Parson's work. 

“That could be why people were experiencing non-alcoholic liver damage by breathing it in,” he said. 

Cyanobacteria produces the liver toxin Microcystin and the brain toxin BMAA, which scientists have associated with neurodegenerative diseases like ALS -- though they cannot say it causes them.

We can generally spot explosions of cyanobacteria in water because it produces it signature blue-green slime, but scientists have not tested the air near these blooms in Florida -- until now.

“When the cyanobacteria dries, it will almost be like a crust. I haven’t done this but it would be the equivalent of like grinding it up in your fingers and it turns into a powder, and then the winds pick up that powder,” said Parsons. “You can see it in the seawalls, just this green dust. The worst-case scenario would be a significant amount of Microcystin and BMAA would be getting into the air and onto the smallest filters of our air samplers.”

Florida Gulf Coast partnered with Yale University for the experiments. They line up canisters with filters that simulate human lungs, then place them at different sites and pump air through them for weeks at a time.

They placed the first sampler at a volunteer’s house in Cape Coral where you could see patchy blooms in his backyard canal. As he continued the experiments, he found traces of Microcystin and BMAA in air samplers. His team didn’t test last summer when the blooms in the water were most intense.  

Debra Moreland and her sister Teresa Anderson are not surprised, and say the exposure to airborne toxins made them sick. Last year, they cleaned homes in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the state. They said the water was like pea soup, and green dust was dispersed through the homes they cleaned.  

“Every time we were in certain neighborhoods, you could taste the chemical in the back of your throat," said Anderson. “It was inside windows, it was in properties. It was everywhere"

Theresa said she developed internal bleeding, while Debra got a lung infection. Both says they also appear to have developed neurological problems. 

“I was very forgetful, couldn’t hold onto things. I was dropping things all the time. I'm very worried about the long-term effects," offered Moreland. 

They closed their cleaning business and moved to Texas.

While they worked where the blooms were most severe, Dr. Parsons says you will likely find the same toxins in lakes, rivers and neighborhood retention ponds all across the state. He continues to test for toxins in the air to try to determine where and if, or to what extent, they may pose a risk to people.

"Is this a plausible risk that we need to explore more and understand better? So far the answer is yes,” he said.