Florida’s air quality is great — just don’t inhale the algae bloom poison

July 1, 2021 7:00 am

Blue-green algae blooms. Credit: UF/IFAS, University of Florida.

I’ve been married for more than a quarter century, so I am a little hazy about how the dating world works. But I recall a time — way back around the Mesozoic Era, I think — when you’d hear someone trying to convince a reluctant friend to go on a blind date by using language such as, “He ain’t much to look at, but he’s got a great personality.”

Wait, that might have been about me.

Anyway, I thought about this the other day when I read a story on the Florida Politics website in which the Department of Environmental Protection folks were boasting about how clean Florida’s air is.

The story noted that “for the second straight year, Florida has met all ambient air quality standards and ranks atop the most populated states in the U.S. for clean air.”

“These efforts have not only resulted in Florida continuing to have the cleanest air on record but to remain the most populous state in the United States to meet these stringent federal standards,” an unnamed spokesperson said.

I checked with the DEP myself and, sure enough, it’s true.

“The state of Florida has one of the best outdoor air quality monitoring networks in the country, designed to provide the public with accurate air quality information, and currently meets or exceeds federal air monitoring requirements per the Clean Air Act,” DEP press secretary Alexandra Kuchta told me via e-mail.

How did this happen?

“This is the culmination of several years of collaborative efforts between DEP, EPA, and industry to reduce emissions and improve air quality for Florida’s citizens,” Kuchta explained.

This is no easy accomplishment. After all, we’re the third most populous state now, with 21 million residents and 100 million visitors every year cruising along in pollution-belching cars and trucks. And yet we’re not constantly coughing and wheezing from sucking in bad air.

But touting Florida’s clean air feels a bit like pushing the “great personality” part of the blind date pitch.

Nobody treks down (or over or up) to Florida because of our clean air. There are no Visit Florida ads that say, “Come to the Sunshine State, where you can really breathe!” There are no postcards showing people inhaling and exhaling with wild abandon.

Even a diehard Florida-phile like me would rank our good air quality low on a list of our attractive attributes, below “state park employs mermaids,” “lots of fake dinosaurs,” and “most bizarre police log items.”

People come here to visit or to live because of our water, not our air. They want to swim at the beach, to fish in a lake, to kayak the rivers.

Manatees. Credit: Visit Florida.

Right now, our waterways are pretty messed up. Our rivers and bays and lagoons are struggling with excessive nutrient pollution and its consequences. If you don’t believe me, ask one of the 800 or so manatees that have died this year from starvation because the seagrass they eat disappeared.

What the DEP didn’t mention is that our poor water quality is affecting our clean air.

On Monday, my wife and I were going out to run some errands. She stopped before getting into the car and sniffed the air, then looked toward a waterfront park about a block from our house.

“Do you smell that?” she asked. “Smells like red tide.”

She had caught a whiff that nauseating mix of throat-closing poison and decaying dead fish wafting in on an otherwise welcome bay breeze.

The toxins in red tide can be lethal for a wide variety of marine life — not just fish but also manatees, sea turtles, and even sea birds that eat the dead fish. Humans with respiratory ailments should steer clear, too, or they’ll wind up hacking like a longtime smoker with a pack-a-day habit.

That particular algae bloom has been floating off the Gulf Coast for months now, slowly moving north until it reached our area in Pinellas County. It’s bad, but not as bad as its been in the past — or, as Gov. Ron DeSantis pointed out during a June 17 roundtable on red tide in St. Petersburg, “This is not 2018. Hopefully, we don’t see that this time or anytime in the future.”

Red tide is bad, but what’s worse is that a bloom of blue-green algae has resurfaced on the East Coast. Such blooms have been erupting more and more frequently in recent years thanks to a potent mix of human-caused pollution and human-caused climate change.

Blue-green algae looks horrible and smells worse. I once interviewed a lady from Martin County whose local beach had been shut down over the Fourth of July weekend by a blue-green algae outbreak so bad it became known as the “Mean Green 2016” bloom.  She described its distinctive scent as “death on a cracker.”

But blue-green algae produces something worse than a bad smell. Even the Centers for Disease Control is concerned — so much so that it’s launched a study in Florida.

Sniffing out a ‘Very Fast Death Factor’

Technically, blue-green algae isn’t algae at all. It’s a little critter called “cyanobacteria.”

Like red tide, cyanobacteria is a microscopic organism that can cause gigantic problems for people. Just like red tide, in warm, nutrient-rich water, it can multiply quickly, creating blooms full of nastiness.

The blooms spread what’s known as “microcystin toxins” that can be so harmful that the state Department of Health will post warning signs. In Palm Beach County alone, the Palm Beach Post recently reported, the department posted eight in June alone, stretching from Lake Okeechobee to a spillway leading the Lake Worth Lagoon. (This came after a month in which a blue-green algae toxin briefly showed up in some Palm Beach County drinking water sources.)

Lake Okeechobee has a lot of nutrient pollution in it, and it has repeatedly spawned massive blue-green blooms, some big enough to be seen from space. Because Army Corps of Engineers officials dump out massive amounts of lake water when they get worried about the dike around the lake breaking, they frequently send those blooms sluicing out to coastal communities on both sides of the Florida peninsula, where they can create thick green mats that resemble the most repulsive guacamole dip you’ve ever seen.

As you might guess, the Corps is about as popular in those communities as a Category 5 hurricane. This was particularly true during the 2018 “Summer of Slime,” when massive red tide and blue-green algae blooms caused widespread environmental and economic damage around the state.

The only good thing about the repeated blue-green algae disasters is that it has led to a lot of scientific research on algae blooms. For instance, an Ohio University study in 2017 linked blue-green algae toxins with a cluster of fatal liver disease cases in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Okeechobee counties. However, they could not pin down exactly how the toxins in the cyanobacteria caused those liver problems.

And scientists with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Fort Pierce did a study that found that as a blue-green algae bloom becomes more toxic, so does the air inhaled by the people who live and work around the bloom. reported that the scientists took nasal swabs from 121 people who lived or worked at or near the St. Lucie River during the 2018 outbreak. They found microcystins in 115 of those noses (the nose knows!).

This was during a time when the toxicity of the bloom in the river registered at nearly 50 times the level considered hazardous to humans. The scientists saw a correlation with the nasal swabs.

You don’t have to be standing on the shoreline to get a snootful, either. A Florida Gulf Coast University study reported in 2019 that people were inhaling blue-green algae toxins as much as a mile inland, the Fort Myers News-Press reported.

What’s the harm, you may ask, from breathing in stinky fumes from tiny bacteria? Because that’s the easiest way for the Very Bad Things in the bacteria to get into your bloodstream.

Those include a slow-acting toxin called BMAA, suspected of triggering neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and even Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Another blue-green algae toxin that floats like a bloodthirsty butterfly is one with a much catchier name: Anatoxin-a, aka “Very Fast Death Factor,” which sounds like the worst perfume ever sold. Imagine the commercial! “Very Fast Death Factor, the new fragrance so potent that it’s knocking everyone dead.”

It got that name because “it has been blamed for the deaths of livestock, waterfowl, and dogs. Acute exposure can cause loss of coordination, muscular twitching, and respiratory paralysis,” a UPI story reported in April. I’m twitching just thinking about it.

You can see why the CDC would be determined to learn how lethal blue-green algae can be, even as it continues battling that deadly virus that our governor seems to think is all gone.

DeSantis’ failure to address his failure

In May 2019, the CDC announced it would conduct its first-ever study of the health effects of blue-green algae among Lake Okeechobee fishing guides.

The study ran into a small problem: A lot of the guides didn’t want to be studied. They told a TCPalm columnist that they feared the CDC would generate bad publicity and drive away customers.

Then the pandemic hit and the study withered as the CDC was consumed by battling COVID-19. But this May, the agency announced it would try again to study cyanobacteria’s deadly emissions, giving the project a fishing-related acronym: CAST, short for Cyanotoxins in Air Study.

But the targeted demographic is bigger than just Lake O anglers.

“People who live or work on Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie River, Caloosahatchee River, or Cape Coral Canals in Florida, may be eligible to participate,” the agency wrote on its CAST website.

In contrast to the prior reluctance, the study has already enrolled 26 participants and is trying to line up more, a CDC spokesperson told me via email. Among other things, the agency will ask them to provide blood and urine specimens and nasal swabs, to be tested for cyanobacterial toxins as well as changes in liver and kidney function.

John Cassani of the Southwest Florida environmental group Calusa Waterkeeper said such a study is desperately needed as the frequency and duration of these algae blooms increase.

“We feel a sense of urgency,” he told me.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

That same sense of urgency has apparently not reached DeSantis or the Legislature. A bill filed earlier this year to adopt all the recommendations of the scientists the governor had appointed to the Blue-Green Algae Task Force died in committee.

Cassani noted that DeSantis did nothing to try to resuscitate it, despite promising in 2018 that he’d work tirelessly to dispel the blooms and their effects.

DeSantis has been all over the TV this past week talking about the Surfside condominium collapse, expressing his concern for the victims and their relatives, and talking about the rescue efforts. Good for him. That’s exactly what a governor should do during a disaster.

But in the meantime, DeSantis has been ignoring this slower-moving disaster. He hasn’t spoken a word to the folks who breathe in the poisons from the algae blooms he failed to fix. He hasn’t held a roundtable in their area or even mentioned in public what’s been happening there.

For a politician seeking re-election next year, that seems like a huge mistake. His failure to address this failure by his administration is going to give his campaign a scent like a double dose of Very Fast Death Factor. And you can’t fan that away with a handful of fresh-air boasting press releases.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.