After Ian and Nicole, experts warn of health risks from blue-green algae
Hurricanes season is long gone, but Florida's waterways are still recovering. The powerful storms pushed millions of gallons of sewage and fertilizer into fresh water bodies and that is causing outbreaks of blue-green algae, which can be toxic to humans and fish.
Shannon Valentine-Sanders had been suffering from mysterious symptoms for a couple weeks last year when she vaguely remembers sending an emergency alert to her family from a KFC parking lot in Matlacha, on Florida’s Southwest coast. “I didn’t know where I was,” she says. “I thought I was drugged or poisoned or something.”
Seeing her pain, exhaustion and forgetfulness, hospital doctors connected her illness to toxins secreted by blue-green algae floating in mats around the sailboat she’d lived on over the summer. She’d battled to keep the ropes and hull clean, even swimming among the scum as she scrubbed.
Sixteen months after she fell ill, Valentine-Sanders remains a prisoner of her symptoms. “I just was never right after that,” she says.
Hurricanes that hit Florida in September and October this year pushed millions of gallons of nutrient-rich sewage and fertilizer into waterways across Florida, including the St. Johns River, feeding blooms that could turn toxic during the weeks and months to come.
“The pollution will stick around for a long time,” says St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. “We’re not seeing any positive toxicity reports in the St. Johns at the moment, but these outbreaks, they can be toxic one day and not the next.”
Experts have long cautioned people to stay away from the blooms and to protect their kids and pets. Exposure to poisons produced by the blooms can occur through the air or through the water.
As scientists and officials monitor for new algae blooms and test them for toxins after the back-to-back storms, victims and researchers are warning health effects can last years and turn deadly. While more research is needed, it’s becoming clear that long-term maladies range from Alzheimer’s disease to liver damage.