Why Don’t Dead Dolphins Worry Our Leaders?

The human health crisis blooming in Florida is becoming harder to ignore.

Last week a new study showed that dolphins are testing positive for fatal neurological disorders–similar to Alzheimer’s–after chronic exposure to toxic algae in the same waters that we swim in, fish from, and live on.


The study, led by researchers at the University of Miami, determined that BMAA–the same amino acid present in the green slime that chokes coastal community waterways in years with discharges from Lake Okeechobee–has been detected in the damaged brains of Florida dolphins. It’s a breakthrough for scientists: further proof of bioaccumulation through the marine food chain, with the potential to further understand the effects of long-term exposure to cyanobacteria and the suspected link to neurodegenerative diseases.

The looming question: To what extent do humans face the same risks?

Research shows BMAA bioaccumulates, collecting in crustaceans and bottom-feeding fish that are then eaten by larger and larger predators where the amino acids concentrate in their neuroproteins. According to scientists involved in the study, the immediate symptoms of exposure are next-to-nothing, but over time develop into crippling or fatal brain diseases.

The dolphins examined were collected in locations known to have recurring harmful algal blooms–much like the ones unloaded on communities east and west of Lake Okeechobee on an almost annual basis. With that in mind, it shouldn’t shock anyone that specimens from Florida showed three times the amount of detectable BMAA. All but one had BMAA in their brains and also showed signs comparable to human neurodegenerative disease.

If that doesn’t give you pause, consider this: While toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee persist, Floridians are effectively being asked to gamble their health on outdated water management policies, even without considering these new findings. We already know that acute exposure to toxins released by harmful algal blooms can result in respiratory illness, skin rashes, breathing difficulty, intestinal problems and liver damage. This additional research suggests even scarier implications. When asked whether it was safe to swim in the water or eat fish caught where blooms are present, leading scientists tracing the connection between toxic algae and ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s gave a resounding “no.”

Evidence is stacking up; trusted voices are telling us to take caution. So why isn’t every leader screaming from the rooftop for operational changes for the management of Lake Okeechobee that will minimize people’s risk of exposure to toxic discharges?

The long-term human health impact of toxic blooms may not be fully known for years. How long do we need to wait before prioritizing preventative action? The moral answer shouldn’t be, “years.”

We’ve watched dogs die. We’ve watched dolphins die. Our canaries in the coal mine are collapsing. What will it take for our leaders to make changes that prioritize our health and safety?