Recently John and George have favored the Kiplinger Natural Area in Stuart, Florida, a mixed habitat with botanical goodies ranging from Gordonia trees now bearing huge white “camellia” blossoms to a Royal Palm towering above the steaming jungle. A deep dark mangrove swamp there flanks the St. Lucie River. The same St. Lucie River as toxic algae fame, so we must take a look. In fact, John brought a rope ladder, and are we too old to monkey down a rescue device from the boardwalk to the riverbank? (Yes, but we did it anyhow.) The somber goal was a look at the green menace, peeking a little deeper than all those green canals on Facebook and quickie shots on the news.
First of all, thank you TV news for muddling an important issue. The trouble is not toxic algae, but rather cyanobacteria. Repeat, bacteria. Yes, cyanobacteria are often called “bluegreen algae,” a misnomer, and yes algae are heterogeneous and poorly defined, still, cyanobacteria are not algae. Or to put it differently, I’m more closely related to an alga than a cyanobacterium is. Cyanobacteria and some true algae just happen to look alike if you don’t look closely. So let’s look closely now.
The newscasters have one thing right, the cyanobacteria are toxic with a capital T. Now, some folks may think of toxic as making your skin itch or causing a cough or diarrhea. Passing acute discomfort is never as scary as chronic effects, and the potential long-term dangers of certain cyanobacteria are seriously frightening. The complex world of cyanobacterial poisons is a long list. Here are some prime examples to curl your hair. There are plenty more:
Microcystis causes or is strongly implicated in: gastroenteritis, colo-rectal cancer, liver damage, and liver cancer. The most studied toxins from Microcystis are called microcystins; they inhibit fundamental life-critical enzymes, and they promote tumors. That’s not nice, and that’s not all…
Anabaena causes fever, rash, and gastroenteritis. And worse: Its toxins are related chemically to insecticides. The old insecticide SEVIN is a carbamate; so are Anabaena’s saxitoxins which interfere like SEVIN with nerve impulses. They are similar to pufferfish poisons, and to paralytic shellfish poisoning.
The insecticides Malathion and Orthene are organophosphates; so is Anabaena anatoxin which interferes with the same neurotransmitter system the insecticides damage. Cyanobacteria invented these killers long before the WII death industry caught on to the same for killing people and bugs. Just think, we worry (rightfully) about polluting the river with artificial insecticides. Interesting how “natural” is not all sunbeams and granola, but then again, the massive cyanobacterial blooms are not natural to begin with.
Lipopolysaccharide toxins are in the cell walls, external to and oozing from certain bacteria, including cyanobacteria, and come free amply in the water to make us sick.
But what’s a fever compared with tumors, liver destruction—and even worse: cyanobacteria are linked to ALS. The poison connected to ALS is a rogue amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Oh my, what if rogue amino acids get built into or childrens’ proteins?
Have there been human poisonings? Absolutely. Sixty dead in Brazil where cyano-tainted water was used for dialysis! Short-term effects are easy to document. Long-term effects are tougher to track. An unlucky region in China has high liver cancer rates correlated with cyanobacterial contamination. I’m going to a suburb of Toledo next week. Come to think of it, Toledo had microcystins in its tapwater. Name a livestock species…somewhere it has died from drinking cyanobacterial-infested ponds.
The consequences on a natural aquatic food chain must just be dreadful…a witch’s brew working on the plankton, plants, arthropods, fish, and birds. Flamingoes have taken a cyanobacterial beating.
Watch the little movie John and I made today. Let’s entitle it, “How’d You like to Be a Manatee in This Soup”? CLICK to view the brew.