[permaculture] Red tides? Don't go near the ocean

Keith Johnson keithdj at mindspring.com
Wed Sep 20 17:45:31 EDT 2006

Dark Tides, Ill Winds
With sickening regularity, toxic algae blooms are invading coastal 
waters. They kill sea life and send poisons ashore on the breeze, 
forcing residents to flee.
By Kenneth R. Weiss, Times Staff Writer
August 1, 2006

LITTLE GASPARILLA ISLAND, FLA. — All Susan Leydon has to do is stick her 
head outside and take a deep breath of sea air. She can tell if her 
10-year-old son is about to get sick. If she coughs or feels a tickle in 
the back of her throat, she lays down the law: No playing on the beach. 
No, not even in the yard. Come back inside. Now.

The Leydons thought they found paradise a decade ago when they moved 
from Massachusetts to this narrow barrier island, reachable only by 
boat, with gentle surf, no paved roads and balmy air that feels like 
velvet on the skin.

Now, they fear that the sea has turned on them. The dread takes hold 
whenever purplish-red algae stain the crystal waters of Florida's Gulf 
Coast. The blooms send waves of stinking dead fish ashore and insult 
every nostril on the island with something worse.

The algae produce an arsenal of toxins carried ashore by the sea breeze.

"I have to pull my shirt up and over my mouth or I'll be coughing and 
hacking," said Leydon, 42, a trim, energetic mother of three who walks 
the beach every morning.

Her husband, Richard, a 46-year-old building contractor, said the wind 
off the gulf can make him feel like he's spent too much time in an 
overchlorinated pool. His chest tightens and he grows short of breath. 
His throat feels scratchy, his eyes burn, and his head throbs.

Their symptoms are mild compared with those of their son, also named 
Richard. He suffers from asthma and recurring sinus infections. When the 
toxic breeze blows, he keeps himself — and his parents — up all night, 
coughing until he vomits.

If the airborne assault goes on for more than a few days, it becomes a 
community-wide affliction. At homeowners' meetings, many people wear 
face masks.

On weekends, the Leydons escape inland. They drive three hours to 
Orlando so their son can play outside without getting sick. They go to a 
Walt Disney World resort with water slides, machine-generated currents 
and an imported white sand beach.

"It's a shame to leave this beautiful place and go to a water park," 
Richard Leydon said. "But we don't have much choice. We have to get away 
from it."

Harmful algae blooms have occurred for ages. Some scientists theorize 
that a toxic bloom inspired the biblical passage in Exodus: " … all the 
water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and 
the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the 
Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt."

What was once a freak of nature has become commonplace. These outbreaks, 
often called red tides, are occurring more often worldwide, showing up 
in new places, lasting longer and intensifying.

They are distress signals from an unhealthy ocean. Overfishing, 
destruction of wetlands, industrial pollution and climate change have 
made the seas inhospitable for fish and more advanced forms of life and 
freed the lowliest — algae and bacteria — to flourish.

A scientific consensus is emerging that commercial agriculture and 
coastal development, in particular, promote the spread of harmful algae. 
They generate runoff rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients 
that sustain these microscopic aquatic plants. In essence, researchers 
say, modern society is force-feeding the oceans with the basic 
ingredients of Miracle-Gro.

Yet there is debate among Florida scientists over the precise causes of 
local outbreaks. Red tides date back at least 150 years, before the 
state became one of the nation's most populous. Some scientists say 
their increased intensity is part of a natural cycle.

People who have spent many years on Little Gasparilla Island and in 
other Florida Gulf Coast communities say red tides used to show up once 
in a decade. Now, they occur almost every year and persist for months.

Red tide announced its arrival this summer by dumping dead tarpon and 
goliath grouper on the beaches. Soon after, coastal residents were 
coughing and sneezing.

The previous bloom, which ended in mid-February, peppered Florida's 
western coast with its fiery breath for 13 months, stubbornly refusing 
to dissipate despite three hurricanes.

The culprit is a microorganism known as Karenia brevis. Each Karenia 
cell is a poison factory pumping out toxins collectively known as 

During red tides, they can be absorbed into the food chain by scallops, 
oysters and other popular seafood and can cause neurotoxic shellfish 
poisoning. The effects range from gastrointestinal illness to seizures, 
loss of muscle control and unconsciousness.

Brevetoxin also gets into the air. It collects on the surface of bubbles 
and concentrates in sea foam and on dead fish.

When the bubbles burst, brevetoxin is flung into the air and carried by 
the wind. If inhaled, most particles lodge in the nose and throat, but 
some are drawn deep into the lungs. People don't have to set foot in the 
ocean or even on the beach to experience a red tide. It comes to them.

Most of those affected feel as if they have a cold or an allergy. But 
researchers reported last year that red tides coincided with outbreaks 
of severe respiratory ailments.

They compared emergency admissions at Sarasota Memorial Hospital during 
three months of red tide with the same period a year later, when there 
was no toxic algae.

During the red tide, admissions for pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma, sinus 
infections and similar afflictions rose 54%. No such increase was 
reported inland.

"You can tell when it's a bad red tide," said Dr. Brian Garby, the 
hospital's chief of emergency medicine. "The waiting room is filled with 
people coughing and they don't know why."

Most alarming was a 19% increase in cases of pneumonia, a leading cause 
of death among the elderly.

Brevetoxin doesn't cause those maladies directly. Instead, researchers 
believe, it makes people vulnerable by inflaming their sinuses and 
suppressing their immune systems, allowing bacteria and viruses to flourish.

Boxy air filters stationed around Sarasota have detected the wind-borne 
neurotoxin three miles from the coast, said Barbara Kirkpatrick, a 
researcher at Mote Marine Laboratory, a private research institute in 
the city. "The public health message has been, 'If you leave the beach, 
you'll be OK.' Now we know better. People who are window shopping or 
eating in outdoor restaurants are still being exposed to the toxins."

Hundreds of visitors from the Midwest and New England have posted 
questions and complaints on websites, seeking to learn why, after a 
short beach vacation on the west coast of Florida, they suffered weeks 
of coughing, bronchial infections, dizziness, lethargy and other symptoms.

Researchers are hearing a growing number of complaints about 
neurological symptoms.

Ruth DeLynn, a 79-year-old retired biologist and volunteer curator at 
Mote Marine Laboratory, was hospitalized for five days last year with 
respiratory distress during a particularly virulent red tide. DeLynn 
also experienced numbness and a burning sensation in her legs that made 
it difficult to walk. She and her doctor believe the toxin triggered a 
resurgence of peripheral neuropathy that had been dormant for 15 years.

"If this is going to continue this way," said DeLynn, who lives on a 
barrier island near Sarasota, "I'm thinking of moving inland."

Neurological symptoms usually flare only with high levels of exposure, 
said Dr. Lora Fleming, a University of Miami epidemiologist and 
physician. "It's all about dose."

Fleming isn't persuaded that people on the beach can inhale enough to 
suffer serious neurological effects, but she thinks surfers may be more 

"I felt like I inhaled a garbage bag," said Purdy, 33, a former high 
school swimming champion. "It locked up my lungs and throat like a 
paralysis." The seconds ticked by. "I was thinking, 'Is this the way 
it's going to end?' "

Eventually, he managed to sneak in a little air. It was like sucking 
through a cocktail straw. He made his way to shore but didn't feel much 
better until emergency medical technicians hooked him up to oxygen. "It 
was the closest thing I've had to a near-death experience," he said.

Unlike surfers, marine mammals can't seek refuge on land. Last year's 
red tide took the lives of at least 88 manatees, some weighing more than 
a ton. Hundreds of these massive sea cows have succumbed during 
outbreaks in previous years.

Greg Bossart, a veterinarian and pathologist at Harbor Branch 
Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, dissected the tissue of manatees 
and determined that many died from inhaling brevetoxin-laden air just 
above the ocean's surface. The result was a cascade of nerve and tissue 
damage that filled their lungs with blood.

"The manatees are gassed to death," Bossart said. "They die of toxic shock."

Bossart considers the manatee a sentinel for human health, or, as he 
puts it: "Florida's 2,000-pound canary. We've opened a Pandora's box of 
health issues."

The oceans are awash in microscopic algae, or plankton. But of the 
thousands of different kinds, only about 100 produce toxins.

About 60,000 people in the United States are poisoned each year by algae 
blooms. Most get sick by eating fish and shellfish that concentrate 
neurotoxins from the vast quantities of algae they consume.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only 2% to 
10% of all cases are reported to health authorities — usually those that 
involve numbness, paralysis, coma or other severe symptoms. Cases of 
nausea, cramping and diarrhea tend to go unreported.

Estimates of algae-related illness don't include the many thousands of 
people in Florida and other Gulf Coast states who suffer from inhaling 
airborne brevetoxin.

Nearly every coastal region has outbreaks of harmful algae or bacteria.

For the second summer in a row, shellfish beds in New England are being 
closed because of toxic algae that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. 
These blooms that typically begin in the Gulf of Maine were rare until 
the 1970s. Now, they appear almost every year, often spreading down the 
coast as far as Cape Cod.

California and other West Coast states periodically have banned 
shellfish harvesting because of toxic algae, including Pseudo-nitzschia, 
which wasn't identified until 1987. That was when it killed three people 
who ate contaminated mussels in Montreal. Since then, it has left 
California's coastline littered with dead and dying marine mammals and 

Marine biotoxins are among the most potent biological poisons ever 
discovered. Saxitoxin, which causes paralytic shellfish poisoning, is 
listed among chemical agents banned under a United Nations compact on 
weapons of mass destruction. As with other algae-produced neurotoxins, 
there is no known antidote.

People help spread harmful algae by fertilizing them with sewage and 
farm runoff, transporting them in the ballast water of ships, dredging 
harbors or warming seawater through climate change.

Patricia M. Glibert, a marine scientist at the University of Maryland, 
has found that the worldwide spread of paralytic shellfish poisoning has 
closely tracked the expanding use of urea, a nitrogen fertilizer.

Glibert estimated that fertilizer use will rise 50% this decade "in 
parts of the world that are already saturated with nitrogen and 
frequently plagued by harmful blooms."

Donald Anderson and colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 
in Massachusetts traced the origin of a strain of algae responsible for 
a 1998 outbreak of paralytic shellfish poisoning on France's 
Mediterranean coast. Analyzing DNA and shipping records, they concluded 
that it hitched a ride from Japan in the belly of a ship.

Disturbance of the seafloor by dredging is believed to help promote the 
growth of algae that cause ciguatera fish poisoning. About a million 
people a year show signs of ciguatera poisoning — such as 
gastrointestinal distress, numbness, weakness, vertigo and coma — after 
eating fish from tropical waters.

Cruise ship passengers who ate raw oysters from Alaskan shellfish beds 
became violently ill two years ago in an outbreak that medical 
researchers tied to the bacterial pathogen Vibrio, common in the Gulf of 
Mexico. Researchers realized the strain had moved 600 miles farther 
north than ever before, as Alaskan waters warmed above the 59-degree 
threshold that limited the bacterium's range.

A University of Miami marine biologist, Larry E. Brand, examined water 
samples dating to 1954 and found that outbreaks of Karenia brevis off 
Florida's Gulf Coast are getting stronger, lasting longer and spreading 

"When you look at it statistically, red tides are 10 times more abundant 
than they were 50 years ago," Brand said. Once, "the peak time was in 
the fall…. Now we have blooms continuing on and lasting into the winter 
and spring."

The highest concentrations of algae, he said, were along heavily 
developed shorelines and around the mouths of rivers that disgorge 
nutrient-laden waters from sugar-cane fields and sediment from phosphate 

Brand said that was no coincidence. It reflects "a huge increase in 
sewage, runoff from lawns and golf courses, mining and agriculture," he 

State officials say Brand may be misinterpreting the water samples. 
Cynthia Heil, a senior state scientist, said the data do not support the 
conclusion that pollution from agriculture or development spawns red 
tides, although she said it may intensify or prolong the outbreaks.

Heil said there is compelling evidence of blooms that originate out at 
sea, far from coastal concentrations of man-made pollutants.

She and a team of university scientists in Florida have published a 
study theorizing that iron-rich dust from Africa's Sahara Desert drifts 
across the Atlantic and triggers a natural process that stimulates 
harmful algae blooms off Florida's Gulf Coast.

"The timing sure matches up with blooms," Heil said. "We know it has to 
contribute to enriching seawater with iron and nitrogen."

A television suspended from the ceiling at Mote Marine Laboratory in 
Sarasota plays a public service announcement sponsored by state and 
federal agencies, offering hints for dealing with red tide.

"If you are going to the beach for a short trip, go to your local 
drugstore and buy a face mask, like the ones painters wear," the 
narrator says. "But remember, these masks are only effective for a short 

"People with asthma should also be sure to take their inhalers to the 
beach and use them as prescribed. If your inhaler is not providing 
relief, seek immediate medical attention."

Tourist officials point out that red tides come and go and vary in 
intensity, and that the airborne toxins don't trigger health problems 
unless there is an onshore breeze. Beachgoers on one stretch of coast 
can get a heavy dose, while others a few miles away aren't affected.

Last fall's red tide was one of the worst on record.

Tourists bailed out of hotels and motels, said Dianne Manspeaker, 
manager of the Gulf Surf Resort Motel in Nokomis. "People come to check 
in and say, 'I can't stay here, I can't breathe.' "

Manspeaker is sympathetic to tourists who feel ill and refunds their 
money. She lives inland, and when the wind blows brevetoxin onshore, she 
stays home and tends to business by phone. "If I have to be here," she 
said, "I wear a mask."

A few miles up the coast, Sarasota County lifeguard Mike Zanane listened 
to a familiar chorus of coughs, throat-clearing, sneezes and 
nose-blowing from hundreds of beachgoers.

It was a typical day at the beach during red tide, Zanane said. The 
die-hards lie in the sun and cough all day. They won't leave. Nor will 
they venture into the surf, and Zanane doesn't blame them.

"Sometimes," he said, "you go out there and you feel like you've been 

Red tides have become a staple of the daily reports on surf conditions 
posted on the lifeguard tower. The sign read: "Some Red Tide = Coughs. 
Sneezes. Dead Fishes." A few extra words were scribbled in chalk in the 
margin: "Can't do anything about [it]."

Not that people haven't tried.

In one experiment, researchers from Mote Marine Laboratory sprayed a 
slurry of clay onto the murky water in an effort to smother and sink the 
offending organisms. Another experiment in the works would sterilize 
algae patches with injections of ozone. Such remedies can be 
problematic. Not only do they kill the harmful algae, they wipe out 
every living thing in the vicinity.

Jim Patterson, a past mayor of Longboat Key next to Sarasota, would have 
been satisfied just to rid the beach of the stench of dead fish.

A retired Army general, Patterson took the fight to the fish. He hired a 
boat and crew and set out to chop up the carcasses with a fish shredder 
before they could reach the shore.

The results were disappointing for Patterson and his nonprofit group, 
Solutions To Avoid Red Tide. Instead of whole fish, Longboat Key was 
littered with decaying fish chunks.

Buddy Gaines invited a visitor to look out at the Gulf of Mexico from 
his oceanfront house built on stilts on Little Gasparilla Island. "You 
can see why we love it here," the retired filmmaker said. "It's a shame 
we cannot go outside."

Gaines and his wife, Laurie, don't let their dogs — a pair of Hungarian 
vizslas — outside either. Not during the bloom of a red tide. It's a 
costly lesson the couple learned a couple of years ago.

Their younger dog, Olivia, was a gregarious puppy who loved to frolic in 
the sand, splash in the warm surf and follow joggers down the beach.

One morning, after eating a few small fish that had washed up, she 
arrived home staggering and stumbling. By the time the Gaineses got her 
to a vet, Olivia couldn't see. She was vomiting and convulsing.

"It was heartbreaking to watch," Laurie Gaines said. "We didn't think 
she was going to live."

Veterinarian Amanda Schell didn't know what to make of the symptoms.

"Did she eat rat poison?" the vet asked. "Did she get into antifreeze?"

Schell ran blood tests, looking for West Nile virus and canine 
distemper. Finding no clear answers, she sent the couple to a specialist 
in Tampa.

The next day, local veterinarians treated 16 dogs — all twitching, 
vomiting and suffering from seizures. One died.

Buddy and Laurie Gaines embarked on a monthlong odyssey to save Olivia 
that took them to clinics, animal hospitals and finally Tufts 
University's veterinary school in North Grafton, Mass. The couple camped 
in the parking lot in their motor home while Olivia was cared for inside.

"Sometimes I think I'm the biggest fool in the family to have spent 
$22,000 on this dog," said Buddy Gaines, 70, sitting on his couch with 
Olivia. "I had to take out a second mortgage. But I don't care. I love 
this dog."

Olivia, now 3 years old, appears fully recovered, except for her 
incessant drooling. Veterinarians suspect it's a sign of residual 
neurological damage.

A half-mile down the beach, Susan and Richard Leydon were keeping their 
dog, a sheltie, inside, along with their son, Richard. The air 
conditioner was going full blast.

Richard's bedroom is at the seaward side of the house with a picture 
window overlooking the gulf. "I have the best room," he announced.

It's the best room until the wind begins to blow hard off the ocean. 
Then it's the first to get dosed with toxin-laden air, coming through 
the cracks and electrical outlets. It leaves a vague metallic taste on 
the back of the tongue.

The family has taken to wearing surgical masks on windy red tide nights. 
It's not enough to keep Richard from coughing. His parents also move him 
into a room on the other side of the house.

Richard has spent nearly his entire life on the island and was among the 
first residents to develop symptoms. His most common ailment is a dry 
cough, which he says makes him sound like a barking seal.

The airborne irritants have also triggered recurring sinus infections 
and asthma. On a few occasions, during intense and prolonged red tides, 
Richard has been diagnosed with bronchitis and even pneumonia, which 
kept him out of school for more than a month.

The Leydons said they have consulted with specialists and spent 
thousands of dollars on tests trying to figure out if something other 
than red tide was making their son sick. Doctors couldn't pinpoint anything.

The couple worry about the price their son is paying for their decision 
to move to Florida.

"Is Richard is going to have lung scarring and long-term problems?" his 
father asked. "I need to know."

The conversation in the Leydon household focused on two topics, as it 
often does during red tide outbreaks. One was where to flee for the 
weekend. The other was whether they should move, for good.

"Do we have to sell our house because paradise is killing us?" Susan 
Leydon asked.

Keith Johnson
Permaculture Activist Magazine
PO Box 5516
Bloomington, IN 47408
(812) 335-0383
also Patterns for Abundance Design & Consulting

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