STUART, Fla. - Ron DeSantis successfully ran for governor on a platform of solving the toxic water crisis. But there are no quick and easy solutions, and scientists say it’s already posing health risks you may not expect.
Alex and Misty Aydelotte ought to know. Their 9-year-old poodle ‘Finn’ slipped out of his fence in September and died of toxic algae poisoning. He apparently drank from the St. Lucie River or ate an infected fish near his home in Stuart.
He died at the animal clinic, and his necropsy tied the cause of his death to the same toxic blue-green algae (or cyanobacteria) that had polluted the river.
"He was completely limp, he just wouldn’t move,” said Misty. “It is difficult to understand how it can get to this point with no resolution.”
Ashley Guzi’s dog ‘Costa’ lived in the same neighborhood. After she slipped out her fence, a neighbor saw her drinking from the river. She was also poisoned.
“She was not flinching. She was just staring. She walked a few feet and she was kind of rocking and she just went over,” said Ashley. “They were putting needles in her and her eyes weren’t even blinking or flinching or anything."
Veterinarians treated six dogs in the same Stuart neighborhood in the same time period.
"The big question was, why in a short period of time were all these dogs showing up with the exact same symptoms and exact same lab results?" said Stuart veterinarian Cristina Maldonado. "Then we confirmed all the dogs had high levels of microcystins in the urine and the blood."
SOURCE OF THE ALGAE
The problem has been caused by decades of residential and commercial development. Leaking septic tanks and chemical fertilizer leach into Lake Okeechobee, where it feeds blooms of cyanobacteria known as toxic blue-green algae.
While sugar farms south of Lake Okeechobee have drawn a great deal of criticism for this problem, government water managers say more than 90 percent of the current pollution is coming from nutrient pollution north of Lake Okeechobee.
"It is primarily residential, commercial and agricultural operations north of the lake, running from Orlando into the lake,” said Matt Morrison, office chief at the South Florida Water Management District.
To prevent flooding around the lake, the federal government pumps the toxic algae east and west through our rivers and estuaries, where it emits microcystins that killed Finn the poodle and sickened other dogs who were exposed to it in Stuart.
EXPERTS WARN ABOUT HEALTH EFFECTS
Meanwhile, scientists who study the toxins say it may also affect humans in different ways years after they've been exposed.
While scientists link microcystins to liver damage, the cyanobacteria also produces a toxin called BMAA, which they've associated or correlated with neurodegenerative disease.
"That’s probably one of the more insidious parts of this thing, is that there are no short-term symptoms,” said University of Miami marine science professor Dr. Larry Brand. "The BMAA in these blooms can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS.”
In Guam, researchers associated a spike in ALS-like disease in the 1950s to people who ate fruit bats contaminated with high levels of this BMAA. When Dr. Brand tested shellfish in South Florida, he found they had more BMAA than the bats.
“I found some fish and crabs, which had concentrations of BMAA twice as high as the fruit bats of Guam,” said Dr. Brand. "You have no idea you’ve been exposed to it. Then 10 or 20 years later, you might come down with a neurodegenerative disease”
That’s a point scientists continue to research and debate. There is no doubt the water flowing out of Lake Okeechobee has been a toxic mess. Yet people continue to swim and fish in it.
Reinaldo Diaz with the non-profit Lake Worth Water Keepers has been testing the levels of toxins in and around Lake Okeechobee.
"When the water looked like split pea soup guacamole, I still saw people at the filet table pulling fish out of these waters, still eating them,” Diaz recalled. "I saw a couple of kids jumping in the water and swimming around in it. Green sludge. It’s a pretty tough thing to deal with.”
After scrapping septic tank inspections and regulations meant to protect the water, the state's solution -- under outgoing Governor Scott -- has been to wait for federal money to build more reservoirs, while pumping polluted water deep underground, beneath our supply of drinking water in the aquifer.