Examining Long-term Exposure to Algal Blooms: Protecting Florida’s Ecosystem

Over the last several years, Florida’s east and west coasts have been threatened by harmful algal blooms. The geographic range of the algal blooms has expanded, and blooms are occurring more frequently, lasting longer and becoming more severe worldwide.

During harmful algal blooms, species of cyanobacteria release a variety of toxic compounds into local waterways. As a result, the toxins are killing wildlife and ecosystems, and devasting economies. Tens of thousands of acres of critical seagrass and coral reef tract have been damaged or lost.

Human exposure to the toxins comes from ingestion, direct skin contact or inhalation, and can lead to a variety of ailments for those with skin sensitivities or respiratory health conditions. While there have been numerous occurrences of red tide and blue-green algae in Florida’s waters, scientists’ understanding of the long-term health effects from toxin exposures remains limited.

Currently, a multi-disciplinary team of FAU researchers is leading a first-of-its-kind evaluation to investigate the potential human health effects of long-term exposure to harmful algal blooms. Shirley Gordon, Ph.D., principal investigator and a professor in FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, is spearheading the study.

“We have very little data on human exposure to these blooms despite the prevalence and intensity of cyanobacterial blooms in South Florida,” said Gordon. “Understanding the long-term health impacts is crucial to protecting the health of Floridians. By developing tools to measure concentrations of harmful algal bloom toxins in the environment and multiple human tissues, we will gain a better understanding of this ongoing issue in Florida and elsewhere.”

The team’s latest study, a collaboration between FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Florida Gulf Coast University, expands upon prior studies by FAU and the Florida Department of Health. The project includes the establishment of a human tissue biorepository to provide an infrastructure for ongoing research around the state.

“A science-based understanding of the risks associated with exposure to harmful algal blooms can assist regulators in making health- protective decisions and guiding mitigation efforts to reduce the occurrence and distribution of the blooms,” explained Gordon.

In addition to the human health impacts, the blooms have profound environmental and economic impacts, as well. The rapid, uncontrolled growth of algal populations can
greatly reduce the amount of sunlight that penetrates through ocean water, which poses a serious threat to submerged vegetation like seagrasses. Large, dense blooms can also deplete the amount of oxygen in the water and cause mass die-offs of animals.

Treating contaminated waterways and beaches can be costly. Tourism and property values, along with recreational activities such as boating, swimming and fishing, also suffer as a result of unsightly shorelines and odors from decaying material.

“An investment in FAU’s sustainability efforts is a gift to the planet, and ensures we can surpass the status quo and safeguard our world’s most precious resources,” expressed Gordon. “By making the environment a priority, and encouraging collaboration among disciplines, we can tackle our most pressing environmental issues today to ensure a better tomorrow.”

To learn more about how Florida Atlantic is supporting faculty research like Dr. Gordon’s, as well as how Transcend Tomorrow: The Campaign for Florida Atlantic University is working to create a healthier environment, train more health care workers, and provide scholarships to propel access to higher education, visit transcendtomorrow.fau.edu.

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