Paying a price for paradise

Sea breeze carries arsenal of toxins ashore during red tide outbreaks

August 01, 2006|By KENNETH R. WEISS

LITTLE GASPARILLA ISLAND, Fla. -- All Susan Leydon has to do is stick her head outside and take a deep breath of sea air, and she can tell whether her 10-year-old son is about to get sick.

If she coughs or feels a tickle in the back of her throat, she lays down the law: No playing on the beach. No, not even in the yard. Come back inside. Now.

The Leydons thought they found paradise a decade ago when they moved from Massachusetts to this narrow barrier island, reachable only by boat, with gentle surf and balmy air that feels like velvet on the skin.

Now they fear that the sea has turned on them. The dread takes hold whenever purplish-red algae stain the crystal waters of Florida's Gulf Coast. The blooms send waves of stinking dead fish ashore and insult every nostril on the island with something worse.

The algae produce an arsenal of toxins carried ashore by the sea breeze.

"I have to pull my shirt up and over my mouth or I'll be coughing and hacking," said Leydon, 42, an energetic mother of three who walks the beach every morning.

Her husband, Richard, 46, said the wind off the gulf makes him feel as if he's spent too much time in an overchlorinated pool. His chest tightens, and he grows short of breath. His throat feels scratchy, his eyes burn, his head throbs.

Yet their symptoms are mild compared with those of their son, also named Richard. He suffers from asthma and recurring sinus infections. When the toxic breeze blows, he keeps himself - and his parents - up all night, coughing until he vomits.

Harmful algae blooms have occurred for ages. Some scientists theorize that a toxic bloom inspired the biblical passage in Exodus: "All the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank."

Yet what was once a freak of nature has become commonplace. These outbreaks, often called red tides, are occurring more often, showing up in new places, lasting longer and intensifying.

Scientists believe that partially treated sewage and farm runoff are generally responsible for the worldwide spread of algae blooms.

In essence, they think human activity is force-feeding the oceans with the basic ingredients of Miracle-Gro - nitrogen, phosphorus and iron - that make these microscopic aquatic plants flourish. But when scientists focus on individual blooms, they often have not been able to pinpoint the causes.

People who have spent many years on Little Gasparilla Island and in other Florida Gulf Coast communities said red tides used to show up once in a decade. Now they occur almost every year.

The last red tide, which ended in mid-February, peppered Florida's western coast for 13 months, stubbornly refusing to dissipate despite three hurricanes.

The culprit is a microorganism known as Karenia brevis. Each Karenia cell is a microscopic poison factory, pumping out toxins collectively known as brevetoxins. They are absorbed into the food chain by scallops, oysters and other seafood.

Brevetoxins also get into the air. They collect on the surface of bubbles, and concentrate in sea foam and on dead fish.

When the bubbles burst, brevetoxins are flung into the air and carried by the wind. If inhaled, most particles lodge in the nose and throat, but some are drawn deep into the lungs. People don't have to set foot in the ocean or even on the beach to experience a red tide. It comes to them.

Hundreds of visitors from the Midwest and New England have posted questions and complaints on Web sites, seeking to learn why after a short vacation on Sarasota's beach they suffered weeks of coughing, bronchial infections, dizziness, lethargy and other symptoms.

Brevetoxins don't directly cause severe respiratory ailments. Instead, researchers believe, they make people more vulnerable to respiratory illness by inflaming their sinuses and suppressing their immune systems. Studies show that besides reducing the ability of mucus to clear airways, the toxin may hamper infection-fighting white blood cells.

Dr. Lora Fleming, a University of Miami epidemiologist, isn't convinced that people on the beach can inhale enough to suffer serious neurological symptoms, but she thinks there might be something to the complaints she hears from surfers.

The Leydons' son has spent nearly his entire life on the island and was among the first in the family to develop symptoms. His most common ailment is a dry cough, which he says makes him sound like a barking seal.

The airborne irritants have also triggered recurring sinus infections and asthma. On a few occasions, during intense and prolonged red tides, he has developed bronchitis and even pneumonia, which kept him out of school for more than a month.

The Leydons said they have consulted with a number of specialists over the years and spent thousands of dollars on tests trying to figure out what is making their son sick. They worry about the price he is paying for their decision to move to Florida.

"Is Richard going to have lung scarring and long-term problems?" his father asked. "I need to know."

The conversation in the Leydon household focused on two topics, as it often does during red tide outbreaks. One was where to flee for the weekend. The other was whether they should move, for good.

"Do we have to sell our house because paradise is killing us?" Susan Leydon asked.

Kenneth R. Weiss writes for the Los Angeles Times. For the full-length article and the first two parts of the series, go to baltimoresun.com/oceans.

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