News 27 Sep, 2021

New research links algae blooms to neurological issues

Key points

  • Some harmful algal blooms (HABs) release toxins, causing illnesses in people, animals, and damaging the environment;
  • New research links an algal toxin to neurological problems;
  • People with liver disease are more prone to suffering from neurological problems caused by the blooms;
  • HABs are more frequent and abundant. Learning which types are harmful and how to avoid contact with them is critical.

We already knew that some toxins produced by unicellular algae and cyanobacteria can cause severe illnesses. Symptoms from cyanotoxin exposure range from mild to severe. Touching and swimming in contaminated water, or inhaling airborne toxins, can cause irritation of the:

  • Lungs
  • Skin
  • Eyes
  • Nose
  • Throat

More severe problems occur when swallowing contaminated water or food, and they include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Headaches
  • Neurological symptoms such as muscle weakness
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Liver damage

Algae bloom in front of a coast line

Recently, new research from the University of South Carolina has identified a link between microcystin, a toxin produced by cyanobacterial algal blooms, and neurological issues. The findings also suggest that people with liver disease are more prone to suffering from neurological problems if exposed to these blooms. This amounts to 25 percent of the population.

The toxins and liver disease go hand in hand. According to the study, there’s an opening in the barrier around the brain that allows for “inflammation-causing chemicals or molecules to be transported back and forth from the liver to the brain.” This implies that in the long-term, harmful toxins could negatively impact other organs and pose a huge risk to people’s health.

The list of algae-related concerns doesn’t stop here. Earlier this year, researchers discovered the toxin, anatoxin-a (ATX), in the air for the very first time, proving that dangerous algal toxins can cause loss of coordination, respiratory paralysis, or even death in humans and animals by simply inhaling the air around a contaminated water body. Scientists found a solution: medical face masks can protect us from aerosolized algal toxins. Yet, this is only a temporary fix for a persistent challenge.

Harmful blooms don’t only affect people but the aquatic ecosystem, animals, and the environment at large are at risk. The increase in nutrients flowing into our waters and global warming only fuel the algae problem.

What can be done?

Avoid contact with algae blooms. They can appear as a green foam or scum at the surface of a water body, including those used for drinking water or recreational purposes. Some blooms also cause foul, musty smells. Keep an eye on government websites—such as the EPA or DHEC—they continually update with the latest algae-related resources and information.

In the end, better detection and treatment methods are needed. Controlling the nutrient inflow is critical, yet not immediately feasible. In the interim, there are technological solutions that can help us better understand, predict, and deal with algae and their by-products.