The discovery of a dead young family and their dog last month, along the Merced River in California, led to hiking trail and water access closures close to where the bodies were found.
Efforts to discern the cause of death continue, although foul play has been ruled out. However, tests of the air, soil and water nearby revealed extremely high levels of toxins leading to growing concerns about the danger association with harmful algae blooms.
How Does Algae Affect Air Quality?
Dubbed “red tide” in marine waters or blue-green algae in fresh water, these toxic blooms occur predominantly in warm climates and in water sources containing nutrient rich runoff from agriculture and industrial waste.
Along the eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida, across the Great Lakes region, and many other parts of the country, toxic algae blooms visible by their bright colors and often stinky fumes (from dead or dying aquatic creatures) are becoming more than a nuisance.
In fact, “red tide,” isn’t technically algae but instead an organism called Karenia brevis, which produces a neurogenic toxin (brevetoxin), and can be transported from the water and into the air through “aerosolization” — allowing toxins to travel many miles.
Toxic algae bloom symptoms as a result of exposure include respiratory irritation in the lungs and throat, and difficulty breathing. The greater harm, unfortunately, is that once airborne, the toxic organisms can enter the human body through the respiratory system and into the bloodstream.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, algae bloom effects can lead to rashes, liver illness, vomiting, diarrhea, neurological effects, respiratory problems…and even death in humans and animals.
In the case of John Gerrish, Ellen Chung, their one-year-old daughter Muju, and family dog Oski, the question stumping investigators is how, if to blame, toxins were transported from the water into their bodies? Did the family drink from the water while hiking? Or, was their respiratory system invisibly attacked by nefarious toxins swirling in nearby air — in aerosol form?
Toxic blooms are not common everywhere, but just as groundwater across the country has been found to contain unhealthy per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), contamination levels from chemicals, nitrates and waste are shifting upwards—creating an unstable environment where toxins can be emitted into and carried through the air, directly into the respiratory systems of animals and humans—causing permanent and potentially fatal harm.
Protecting Humans from Toxic Algae Bloom
Results from a study led by University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science researchers found that wearing a face mask is a simple way to combat algae bloom effects. The same mask that people have become accustomed to wearing because of the pandemic can also protect against the health effects of airborne toxins.
"We found that face masks can reduce the risk of exposure by filtering out small, toxin-containing particles," said the study's lead author Cassandra Gaston, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the UM Rosenstiel School. Face masks filtered out over 90% of toxin-containing particles.
After years of research, Miami-based OCTO® Safety Devices was founded to not only improve elastomeric respirator mask design but deliver to market a product that specifically addressed the shortcomings of previously existing models. The OCTO® Respirator Mask (ORM) delivers beyond N95 protection, filtering over 97% of particulates, plus a host of additional benefits, and protects wearers not only from mutating airborne viruses, but various particles and pollutants now contaminating the air we breathe—including algae bloom toxins.
As we begin National Preparedness Month (September), we encourage all outdoor enthusiasts to be on alert while enjoying activities and to consider packing a face or respirator mask, like the ORM, for an added layer of protection.