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Toxic Algae Takes Over Florida Coastlines

Blue-Green Algae Blooms

Story at-a-glance -

  • Toxic blue-green algae blooms, fed by runoff from manure, sewage and fertilizer, are taking over areas of Florida’s coastline
  • Known as cyanobacteria, the algae may be a type called microcystis, which are nerve toxins that may lead to nausea, vomiting, headaches, seizures and long-term liver disease if ingested in drinking water
  • Researchers found a significant correlation between dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) loads and the number of acres planted with herbicide-tolerant genetically engineered (GE) crops (which are heavily sprayed with glyphosate)

By Dr. Mercola

In the middle of summer vacation — what should be the busiest tourist season for many parts of Florida — popular beaches are being shut down and people told to stay out of the water. It’s not a shark; it’s toxic green algae stretching for miles along Florida’s coastline.

“Enjoy your vacation on Playa Guacamole,” the Miami Herald quipped,1 as in some areas the algae is more than thick enough to dip a chip — not that you’d want to. "It smells like death on a cracker,” one Florida resident told the Tampa Bay Times.2 And it’s not only the smell that’s a problem.

Blue-Green Algae Is Dangerous to People, Pets and the Environment

The algae, also known as cyanobacteria, is so prolific it can now be seen from space.3 Further, it can produce toxins that are harmful to humans and marine life. Skin rashes and respiratory issues can result from exposure to the algae, and should it get into an open wound, it can lead to a staph infection.4

Some experts believe the cyanobacteria may be a type called microcystis, which are nerve toxins that may lead to nausea, vomiting, headaches, seizures and long-term liver disease if ingested in drinking water.5

Researchers are also looking into whether another toxin, BMAA (Beta-N-Methylamino-L-alanine), in blue-green algae may be linked to neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease).6

Manatees, fish and other marine life, as well as sea grass and other plant life, are also endangered by the algae blooms, which alter the food chain and deplete oxygen, leading to sometimes-massive dead zones. Not to mention, exposure to blue-green algae can also be deadly to your pets.

What’s Causing Florida’s Massive Algae Bloom?

The algae bloom started in May 2016 in Florida’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Okeechobee. The lake serves as a catchall for runoff from surrounding farms and neighborhoods. Excess septic waste, manure and fertilizer collect in the lake as a matter of course.

As fertilizer runs off of farms and enters waterways, it leads to an overabundance of nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, in the water — nutrients that fertilize the growth of the algae blooms now taking over the coast.

Meanwhile, Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, stated that required pollution limits set for the lake have not been met since they were created in 2001.7 Phosphorus levels in the lake are supposed to be limited to 105 metric tons a year, for instance, but in 2015, they reached 450 tons.8

Then there’s the Herbert Hoover Dike, an aging structure surrounding Lake Okeechobee that’s at risk of collapse, especially during hurricane season.

To reduce stress on the dike, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) carefully controls the water level in the lake, which means when rainfalls are especially heavy, as occurred in January 2016, water is dumped from the polluted lake into the surrounding waterways.

Exposure to saltwater typically keeps potential algae blooms in check, but when large amounts of freshwater continue to be discharged from the lake, it provides enough freshwater for the algae blooms to survive and thrive. The Tampa Bay Times reported:9

“Inevitably, algae blooms follow, with seagrass die-offs, fish kills and other economy-damaging consequences. The last time there was a bloom close to this size and intensity, back in 2005, the estuaries took months to recover … ”

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State of Emergency Declared: Is the Sugar Industry to Blame?

Florida Governor Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency in the area, blaming the environmental disaster on the federal government’s failure to fix the dike.

However, environmentalists point out that the root of the problem is not those who failed to fix the dike but those who polluted Lake Okeechobee — and those who allowed the pollution to occur. The sugar industry is also facing heat from surrounding communities and environmental groups.

U.S. Sugar is a major campaign contributor to Florida’s governor — including a $100,000 donation just made in June 201610 — and the industry has been rewarded in the form of favorable legislation, at the expense of the lake.

For instance, Florida’s government rejected a deal to buy U.S. sugar land south of the lake, which could have been used for water storage (and reduced the need to dump the polluted water into the ocean).

The state government also adopted a new law earlier this year that loosened restrictions on dumping pollution into the lake. Agricultural companies, including the sugar industry, no longer need permits for their discharge; they only have to follow “best-management practices,” which are essentially voluntary.11

In addition to phosphorus-rich runoff from sugarcane fields, other agricultural runoff from cattle ranches, dairy farms, citrus groves and vegetable farms also finds its way into the lake.

The excessive phosphorus is particularly damaging in Florida, where native plants like sawgrass require a low-phosphorus environment to thrive.12

Environmental Groups Say State Officials Are Trying to 'Shift the Blame'

The sugar industry has fired back that only 3 percent of Lake Okeechobee’s phosphorus is coming from sugarcane fields.

However, in the past, the area’s sugarcane fields and sugar mills were responsible for nearly 30 percent of the phosphorus in the lake. Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, told the Sun-Sentinel:13

"There is a historic load of phosphorus already in Lake Okeechobee that came from the sugar farms … There is a current load, even if it is not a major percentage, coming from the sugar farms.

We have had longstanding plans to move some of that water to the sugar farm land, and the sugar industry went from being favorable to that strategy to lobbying against it."

The fertilizer industry is another strong voice in the state, and government officials even proposed eliminating a rule that requires the industry to report monthly sales tonnage statistics.14 Fortunately, the proposal was recently withdrawn.

Rather than deal with the agricultural run-off, environmental groups say state officials are trying to “shift the blame” from the sugar industry toward homeowners’ septic systems.

The state introduced a grant proposal to help residents switch their septic tanks to sewer systems in order to cut down on phosphorus reaching the lake.

But while the septic systems may be a contributor to the problem, they’re not the real problem. Bradley Marshall, senior associate attorney at the Florida office of Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, told the Sun-Sentinel:15

"While certainly they're [septic systems] a source of phosphorus, they're not the primary source of these blooms.

It's no coincidence that the blooms are occurring right after the discharges from Lake Okeechobee. Because that means they can avoid dealing with the real problem, which is runoff."

Lake Erie Algae Blooms Linked to Glyphosate Herbicides

Lake Erie has also been struggling with algae blooms due to manure, sewage and fertilizer runoff, leading to contaminated drinking water and fish die-offs.

Ohio Northern University chemist Christopher Spiese, Ph.D., and colleagues suggested that spikes in dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) runoff that have increased since the mid-1990s coincided with an increased use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) in the area.

At the 2016 Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference, Spiese shared the results of his recent study, which found a significant correlation between DRP loads and the number of acres planted with herbicide-tolerant genetically engineered (GE) crops (which are heavily sprayed with Roundup).

“For every acre of Roundup Ready soybeans and corn that you plant, it works out to be about one-third of a pound of P coming down the Maumee [watershed and into Lake Erie],” Spiese told Sustainable Pulse.16 Spiese also found that glyphosate is capable of releasing phosphorus from the soil and conducted studies to see what happens when soil samples were applied with phosphorus and then sprayed with glyphosate.

Some of the samples showed significant phosphorus release, with “hot spots” likely contributing a significant amount of DRP. Sustainable Pulse reported:17

“Based on the average two glyphosate applications growers make every year, Spiese estimates that overall, 20 to 25 percent of the DRP runoff is caused by glyphosate. But depending on the location within the watershed, that percentage could be much lower or much greater.”

Healthier Farming Methods Are Needed to Curb Toxic Algae Blooms

Many of the world's lakes are at risk due to industrial farm fertilizer runoff feeding harmful blue-green algae. Once the algae are established, it's more difficult to get rid of than previously thought. The answer, according to the researchers, is better land-use management that addresses fertilizer runoff. Dramatic reductions in synthetic fertilizer use are also recommended.

Fortunately, the effects of agricultural runoff on water quality are finally starting to be addressed. In some areas, farmers are trying new conservation methods to ward off toxic runoff and protect water quality. This includes strategies such as building "artificial wetlands and underground ‘bioreactors’ to capture nutrients in drainage systems," according to The Christian Science Monitor.18

Others have started using cover crops and no-till methods to slow fertilizer and pesticide runoff. On an individual level, you can help by buying food from farmers who are using natural methods and soil-regenerative techniques, such as no till, cover crops, composting and livestock integration.

This will naturally help you to eat better too, since typically only real whole foods are grown this way (while most processed foods are the product of destructive industrial nitrogen fertilizer-laden agriculture).