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Toxic algae could threaten economy and human health by 2040

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Toxic algae to impact human health

Researchers from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), using predictive models, suggest changes in climate could begin to impact human health and prosperity by 2040, from toxic algal outbreaks in oceans and seafood.

Changing climate would breed more toxins

The researchers say understanding how changes in oceans, coastal and Great Lakes ecosystems could adversely affect heath can provide information that can help humans prepare for the effects of climate change.

"With 2010 the wettest year on record and third warmest for sea surface temperatures, NOAA and our partners are working to uncover how a changing climate can affect our health and our prosperity," said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. "These studies and others like it will better equip officials with the necessary information and tools they need to prepare for and prevent risks associated with changing oceans and coasts."

One of the predictions from the study, led by Stephanie Moore, Ph.D., with NOAA's West Coast Center for Oceans and Human Health and her partners at the University of Washington, is longer outbreaks of toxic algal blooms in Washington State's Puget sound. The impact could mean a loss of $108 million for the shellfish industry according to the scientist's projections.

"Changes in the harmful algal bloom season appear to be imminent and we expect a significant increase in Puget Sound and similar at-risk environments within 30 years, possibly by the next decade," said Moore. "Our projections indicate that by the end of the 21st century, blooms may begin up to two months earlier in the year and persist for one month later compared to the present-day time period of July to October."

Understanding the possibilities would allow managers to take action to protect humans from the toxic algal outbreaks through close monitoring and appropriate closure of shellfish beds.

The scientists specifically looked at Alexandrium catenella, commonly known as "red tide", another term for algal bloom. The algae color the water red and tend to "explode' after heavy rain followed by sunny weather and is a potent toxin that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) in humans.

Impact of climate change on Great Lakes

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The projections for climate change impact on the Great Lake reveals more rainfall that could cause sewage overflow and bacteria, virus and protozoa release onto beaches and in the drinking water, exacerbated by dated sewage systems.

Remaining proactive can protect economies and human health. Sandra McLellan, Ph.D., at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences found spring rainfall that is expected to increase in the next 50 years, making it important for cities to focus on updating sewer systems.

Atmospheric dust and bacterial spread from climate change

Atmospheric dust is also predicted to spawn bacteria with climate change that would affect human health and prosperity. The scientists explain when desert dust mixes with the atmosphere iron deposits form in oceans. The result is an increase in Vibrio growth, a type of bacteria that can cause gastroenteritis and human infection. In the U.S., Vibrio infections have increased 85 percent since 1996 from contaminated seafood.

According to experts attending the 2010 conference, "Vibrios in the Environment ", held in Biloxi Misissippi, "There is unprecedented activity in the U.S. and globally to control the risk of vibrios and yet in most countries illnesses are increasing. In addition to human disease, vibrios play major roles in health and ecology of marine animals, including fish, mollusks, and corals. Furthermore, the vibrios are still regarded by most marine microbiologists as the dominant culturable bacteria in the ocean and there is good reason to believe that global warming may increase their presence."

The scientists found that within the next 30 years, human health and economy will be affected by our changing climate from overgrowth of algae and toxic bacteria and viruses in the water. Juli Trtanj, director of NOAA's Oceans and Human Health Initiative and co-author of the interagency report A Human H3/16ealth Perspective on Climate Change says, "These new studies and models enable managers to better cope and prepare for real and anticipated changes in their cities, and keep their citizens, seafood and economy safe."

The findings show toxic algae and other bacterial proliferation could threaten the economy and human health by 2040, making it important to take steps toward mitigation. Findings from NOAA suggest bacterial proliferation and toxic algal outbreaks could negatively impact human health and the economy within the next 30 years, or possibly the next decade.


Updated 3/16/2017