Aerial view of toxic algae flower floating in a canal Friday July 14, 2018 in Cape Coral, Florida.
FGCU research released Friday shows airborne cyanobacteria toxins can travel more than a mile inland, raising issues of health impact on those exposed to the region's recent massive blue-green algae bloom last year.
Air samples found two blue-green algae toxins – microcystin and BAMA – at the university's Buckingham complex, said lead scientist Mike Parsons, professor of marine biology. Both have been linked by some scientists to serious health problems, including liver cancer and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's.
Scientists used a device to model how deep algae toxin particles could penetrate human lungs (Photo: Special to The News-Press)
The facilities have previously found them at a Cape Coral canal front home and at the University's Vester Field Station in Bonita Springs, in particle sizes that can penetrate deeply into human lungs. The initial studies were performed in September and October, as last year's virulent flower was declining. Ideally, they have started earlier, Parsons said, but it took time to find partners and funding.
More research is needed to understand the consequences. "We need to be careful because we're talking about liver toxins, neurodegenerative toxins, so we need to treat this in a serious way," Parsons said. "It deserves further study. Right now, it doesn't seem to be high enough to be a problem, but we're not 100 percent safe."
More: Algae toxins are airborne and can reach deep into the lungs, show FGCU studies  The pilot study, a collaboration effort between FGCU and Yale with help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, initially sampled air in Cape Coral, where there was a thick flowering and in Bonita Springs where there was no. Nevertheless, the toxins occurred in both places.
"So it made us scratch our heads a little," Parsons said. "The next step was to see if we could get away from any water source of toxins … to go as far as we could – away from any significant body of water."
In Buckingham, "we were at least a mile away from any detention ponds and three miles from Caloosahatchee", but within 28 days the units still took the toxins up.
"It probably shows that there are naturally occurring background levels of toxin in the air," Parsons said, "whatever is naturally occurring sources."
The next step? Examine the air in several places, several times when flowers reappear.
"We must pursue funding to intensify our sampling and analysis," Parsons said. "And we need to blend this with epidemiological studies in the future to see what this exposure represents in terms of human health risks."
He plans to meet with researchers from Florida Atlantic University who have tested humans for algal toxins, as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Cape Coral in the coming weeks to talk about collaboration.
However, Parsons calls for continued caution. "As with red water, microcystis is still out there. There are still flowers in the river. It is still in the lake, so it did not go away. It is there. Do not have an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude . "
More: FGCU studies find several algal toxins in air samplers – toxins some scientists link to mortal brain disease