At least 15 people were treated at area hospitals last week after making contact with water teeming with blue-green algae from the St. Lucie River near Palm City on Florida’s east coast, tcpalm.com reports.
The algae prompted Sportsman magazine in Stuart, Florida, to close its office.
“It smells like death,” publisher Blair Wickstrom told the Sun-Sentinel.
If ingested, water contaminated with toxic cyanobacteria can cause nausea, vomiting and, in severe cases, acute liver failure, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) says.
The Centers for Disease Control says coming in direct contact with the algae can result in a rash. Some research indicates a link between long-term inhalation of toxic algae fumes and neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes the harmful blooms are sometimes referred to as red tides.
“But this can be misleading since they can be different colors,” the agency notes.
Algae blooms of cyanobacteria originate from runoff containing human waste and fertilizers from nearby farms and neighborhoods, according to the FWC. Nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as other nutrients in the polluted runoff, can act like fertilizer for the algae, creating large and long-lasting blooms.
Earlier in July, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Glades, Hendry, Lee and Okeechobee counties because of the blooms.
To reduce the bloom, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers temporarily suspended scheduled water releases from Lake Okeechobee, but they resumed on Monday.
Meanwhile, the worst red tide in more than a decade has killed marine life, including a number of sea turtles, on Southwest Florida beaches.
According to the Fort Myers News-Press, scores of sea turtles were collected in Lee and Collier counties over the past week.
Last week, the National Weather Service issued a red tide beach hazard advisory for Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties. The advisory was extended past Monday as strong offshore winds pushed the algae onto area beaches.
It was a particularly brutal weekend, with nearly 4,000 dead fish counted Sunday on Sanibel area beaches and parks, the News-Press reported.
According to the FWC, respiratory issues in humans and fish kills can begin when red tide counts reach 10,000 cells per liter. Rick Bartleson, a water quality expert for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundatio, told the newspaper he collected samples that exceeded 20 million cells per liter.
The bloom has triggered respiratory responses in vulnerable people.
Meghan Temple, 33, of Lexington, Kentucky, was on vacation with her family on Sanibel Island last week. She told weather.com that the time they spent at the beach was “interesting, to say the least.”
“We were coughing like crazy and the smell made our noses drip,” she said. “There were dead fish everywhere, and the water was rough, super rough.”
Tony Hurt, an NWS meteorologist in Ruskin, noted that respiratory symptoms could linger even after people return home from the beach. These can include coughing, an itchy throat, watery eyes and difficulty breathing.
The bloom on Florida’s southwest coast originated in waters off Lee County near Fort Myers but has expanded to include waters just south of Tampa Bay to the Collier-Monroe border, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported in June.
Typically, red tide season last from October to February, but this bloom has lingered along the coast for more than 10 months and doesn’t appear to be letting up.
Experts say that even if the winds push the algae away from the shore, marine wildlife will continue to die.
“We might not see as many (dead sea turtles) on the beach but they will still be out there,” Maura Kraus, a sea turtle expert for Collier County, told the News-Press. “The waves just aren’t going to be bringing it in because of the (offshore) wind.”