Newsletter: Toxic Algae Linked to ALS, Alzheimer’s

By Peter Girard

This summer’s toxic algae blooms may have far-reaching health implications that radically alter the debate over water management in South Florida.

Public health concerns came up frequently at last week’s Everglades Coalition annual conference, including building evidence that exposure to toxic blue-green algae blooms can be linked to increased cancer rates and neurological diseases like ALS and Alzheimer’s. Worse, touching the water – even when algae aren’t visible – and even breathing near the shore may expose people to deadly toxins whose affects can take years to surface.

One audience member put it bluntly to a panel including the University of Miami’s Dr. Larry Brand: Do we have to wait 20 years for an epidemic of liver cancer to acknowledge the seriousness of this problem?

 Cyanobacteria in the St. Lucie

The answer is not necessarily “yes.” Although state officials were conspicuously absent from the conference for the first time in years, scientists and engineers from federal agencies repeated their willingness to speed up the planning and work to reduce discharges by storing and treating water south of the lake. Yesterday a Florida Senate subcommittee held a workshop to discuss buying land for the project, the centerpiece of Senate President Joe Negron’s proposal to cut the discharges.

Dr. Thomas Van Lent of the Everglades Foundation explained at the conference that no other solution can be practically expected to work, and that work on Everglades restoration is legally required to prioritize reducing discharges. The US Army Corps of Engineers’ Brig.-Gen. David Turner and Col. Jason Kirk reiterated their willingness to move faster on southern storage – but not without cooperation from the state of Florida.

The South Florida Water Management District responded by attacking the science and the plan. This was no surprise. Rick Scott’s appointees to the SFWMD board are increasingly aligned with the sugar industry, and increasingly hostile to the solution that scientists insist is the only real way to reduce toxic discharges: a dynamic reservoir and systematic water treatment in the Everglades Agriculture Area.

As more findings emerge connecting the toxic algae discharges to life-threatening cancers, brain and nervous system disorders, the state’s position moves closer to willfully exposing nearly a million people on both coasts to a spectrum of known toxins. The human health costs could be staggering.

We haven’t seen a draft of Sen. Negron’s bill, but we adamantly support the scientists and federal authorities calling for quick action to acquire the necessary land and begin the project to reduce these discharges. One comment at the conference captured it grimly: This is our Flint. We can’t let it stand.