Red tide's long-term health effects need study, FAU scientists tell U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson
Environmental reporter Tyler Treadway answers questions about red tide, including how it got to the Treasure Coast and if residents should worry about its effects on their health. Treasure Coast Newspapers
FORT PIERCE — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson learned Wednesday about the toxic red tide algae bloom along Florida's Atlantic Coast and what he can do about it.
Even more important than research into what causes red tide is research that monitors all kinds of toxic algae and discovers their health effects on people, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Executive Director James Sullivan told Nelson.
The current red tide won't be along the Treasure Coast for long, maybe a few days before it moves north and possibly dissipates, Sullivan told Nelson, although a bloom in the Florida Keys could be headed up the East Coast.
But harmful algae blooms "aren't going away any time soon," he added. "We need to deal with reality. There's really critical research that needs to be done about their effects on public health. And isn't that the most important thing?"
Harbor Branch, a division of Florida Atlantic University, already is studying the effects of exposure to toxic blue-green algae on people who live and work along the St. Lucie River. And recently the study expanded to Florida's Gulf Coast.
Before the meeting with Nelson, Sullivan said there's very little research about the long-term effects of red tide.
More:Vero Beach red tide is most toxic on East Coast | Videos
"People tend to think about the acute effects, the immediate effects," he said. "But not much is known about the chronic effects in people. We know the chronic effects in animals: It kills them."
Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of dead fish have washed ashore in Indian River County this week because of red tide.
On the Gulf Coast, where red tide has been present for a year, the dead fish are measured in tons. Manatees, dolphins and even a whale shark have been killed.
Nelson seemed more focused on the causes of the red tide bloom, asking Harbor Branch scientists if the naturally occurring algae cells are being "supercharged" by climate change and pollution.
The short answer is yes, Sullivan said.
Warmer water in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean give the algae cells, which are plants, a longer growing season; and nutrient pollution, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer runoff and leaky septic tanks, are fertilizing the bloom.
"The blooms are going to grow better and longer and with more biomass," Sullivan said.
But the Earth is "not getting any cooler," Sullivan said. And even if you stopped the flow of nutrients into the water, there already are "legacy" nutrients built up over years of unchecked pollution.
Although test results to confirm red tide are not in yet, hundreds of dead fish are lining the shores of Indian River County beaches. GINNY BEAGAN/TCPALM
Toxic campaign issue
Nelson is running for re-election Nov. 6 against Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Both have blamed each other for the toxic blue-green algae blooms plaguing the Treasure Coast and Southwest Florida.
Nelson has criticized Scott's business-friendly economic plan that weakened the Department of Environmental Protection, and Scott criticized Nelson for not getting Everglades projects approved, implying he’s an election-year environmentalist.
Nelson didn't mention his opponent by name Wednesday at Harbor Branch, but he did link the pollution feeding algae blooms, both blue-green and red, to cuts Scott made to state water management districts and the "environmental regulation budget," as well as a law that stopped mandatory septic tank inspections.
"Is it any wonder why we have this current toxic stew?" he asked.
Lifeguard Erik Toomsoo offers the official line from the city of Vero Beach of local reports of red tide at South Beach on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. Treasure Coast Newspapers