FAU Seeks Study Subjects for Health Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms

Harmful Algal Blooms, Study, Florida Department of Health, Florida Residents, Toxins, Health Effects, Research, Water Quality

Florida has experienced numerous harmful algal blooms in recent years. Human exposure comes from ingestion, direct skin contact or inhalation.

By gisele galoustian | 11/18/2021

Florida has experienced numerous harmful algal blooms in recent years. During these blooms, species of cyanobacteria release a variety of toxic compounds, including microcystins, a potent toxin, into local waterways. Human exposure comes from ingestion, direct skin contact or inhalation, and can lead to a variety of symptoms ranging from gastroenteritis, nausea, allergic reactions and skin rashes to liver damage in severe cases. Despite multiple occurrences of red tide and blue green algae in Florida waters, our understanding of the long-term health effects of exposure to these blooms remains limited.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute are currently seeking participants for a study evaluating potential impacts of exposure to harmful algal blooms. They have received a grant from the Florida Department of Health (FDOH), to continue a first-of-its-kind evaluation of both the short-term and potential long-term health effects among Florida residents. The “Long-term Effects of Exposure to Harmful Algal Blooms” (LEE-HABs) study uses a collaborative, multisite approach, which includes researchers from Florida Gulf Coast University.  

“Despite the intensity and frequency of cyanobacterial blooms in South Florida, data on human exposure to these blooms and microcystin concentrations in tissues of people who have been exposed is limited,” said Shirley Gordon, Ph.D., principal investigator and a professor in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing. “Understanding thresholds for both short- and long-term health impacts is crucial to protect the health of Floridians. This research is instrumental in developing the tools needed to measure concentrations of harmful algal blooms toxins in the environment and multiple human tissues to better understand this ongoing issue in Florida and globally.” 

This latest study expands upon prior studies conducted in 2016, 2018 and a previous FDOH study from 2019 to 2020. For this project, researchers will continue to follow a cohort of 102 participants who previously participated during a non-bloom period and collect samples during the next bloom event. They also are working to recruit an additional 50 eligible adults to participate for a similar sampling in 2022. 

The study will be the first-of-its-kind to evaluate the potential effect of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 virus, the causative agent of COVID-19. Researchers will explore if there is a relationship between a history of SARS-CoV-2 virus infection and susceptibility to the effects of harmful algal blooms exposure.

The latest study involves a survey to identify the potential routes, duration and types of exposure to blooms through recreational and occupational activities. They also will assess potential effects on individuals with pre-existing conditions such as asthma and chronic gastrointestinal disorders. Bloodwork including liver enzymes and renal markers will also be included in this study.

Algal toxin concentrations including microcystin and brevotoxin will be measured in blood, urine and nasal mucosa. The toxin levels also will be used to understand the dose-response relationships with self-reported respiratory, dermal and gastrointestinal symptoms. Urine and blood analyses will be conducted in collaboration with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is developing methodology to detect emerging algal toxins in human tissues.  

The study includes conducting environmental sampling of water and air to measure potential sources of exposure.

“We are going to measure the toxin microcystin produced by some cyanobacteria in water samples from study sites in the western, central and eastern portions of Florida that are known to have been impacted by recent blooms,” said Malcolm McFarland, Ph.D., co-principal investigator and a research associate at FAU Harbor Branch. “These samples will supplement publicly available water sample data from the Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District and provide temporal and spatial data on algal blooms to compare with human health assessment data.”

Researchers will develop a bio-repository and participant registry to store the data and samples in collaboration with FAU’s Clinical Research Unit within the FAU Division of Research . The purpose is to build an ongoing infrastructure to support the team’s long-term studies on the health effects of exposure to current and emerging harmful algal blooms toxins and serve as a resource for researchers around the state.

 The research team also includes Kathi Harvey, Ph.D., a nurse practitioner and an assistant professor in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing; and Michael Parsons, Ph.D., co-investigator and a professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University.

For more information or to participate in the study, call or text 561-297-4631, or email Gordon at  NurHAB@health.fau.edu. Community participants will receive $25 in gift cards as an incentive for participating in data collection activities each year.