SARASOTA, Florida – When a red tide approaches the coast or even Tampa Bay, it is impossible to miss. It’s that famous smell of dead fish, and if it’s bad, it can irritate the airways. But doctors don’t think it stops there. Now they are studying the side effects the red tide could have on the human brain.
“When that last bad red tide we had, I had kind of a dry cough, and I’ve never really felt that before, and it went away. And then this year that cough kind of came back. And I suspect it’s caused by living so close to the beach and being exposed to red tide.” said Sarasota resident James Powell.
It’s symptoms like this that Powell reports to the Roskamp Institute in Sarasota, as a participant in a recent study of the effects of red tide on the human neurological system.
The study is in its second year, comparing people with high exposure and low or no exposure to red tide. They report their symptoms as well as blood and urine samples during a bloom.
“The toxin released by the red tide is a neurotoxin, it damages the nervous system. This is how it kills wildlife, how it kills fish, manatees, dolphins, and we know it can affect us as well,” said Roskamp Institute executive director Dr. Michael Mullen at ABC Action News.
In the early 2000s, scientists conducted a 10-year study of respiratory effects, specifically asthma, but they also began documenting other symptoms.
“General malaise, not feeling well, little lethargy,” explained Barb Kirkpatrick, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS).
That’s when they looked at emergency room visits from 2005 to 2009 and found a significant increase in neurological symptoms in coastal zip codes.
“There has been an increase in things like headaches especially during a red tide,” Kirkpatrick said.
“Some people complain of impaired memory and other mental faculties during a bloom,” Mullen adds.
In Roskamp’s lab, they are currently examining 250 people – comparing the level of brevetoxin in their blood and how their body reacts.
“For example, we can see antibodies to the toxin in the blood of some individuals, long after the toxin is gone,” Mullen explained. “And one of the very interesting things that we’ve already seen is that there are quite large differences in levels of antibodies against the toxin between individuals, even when they haven’t been exposed for a while. about six months.”
One question they hope to answer is: are high levels of antibodies a good or bad thing?
“We don’t know how this correlates with neurological complaints. Do you have less neurological compliance if you have high antibody levels because the antibodies mop up the toxin or does it work the other way around and somehow the antibody causes issues, we just don’t know at this point,” Mullen said. .
The Roskamp Institute has also done extraordinary work on Alzheimer’s disease. Mullen said that in the long term, he really wants to know if the red tide will have an effect on diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease?
“Can something like this toxin make it worse or not. I hope the answer is no, but no one has ever watched this before,” he explains. “We really need to make sure there is no significant public health risk here.”
Mullen and his colleagues say that with so many people moving to Florida, and especially to the coast, the answers to this study may be more important than ever.
The Roskamp Institute is looking to add approximately 150 additional participants. They mostly need people who live inland. If you want to participate, click here.
They hope to have their first set of results by 2022.
GCOOS is also trying to secure research funds to study the effects of red tide on the skin.
Kirkpatrick said there have been reports of skin rashes from those swimming in water with high levels of red tide, but they have no data set to say how widespread the exposure may be. or serious.
“We have anecdotal reports of rashes, swelling of the eyes and lips, nasal lining, but what we don’t have hard scientific data on is that 1 in 100,000 people have a rash skin after swimming in the red tide, where is that one out of 100 people? she explained.
GCOOS has also created a beach forecast website that people can check before heading out for a day at the beach. It’s updated every three hours to let you know if there might be a better time of day when less red tide could wash up on shore.