This much is clear: Western Lake Erie’s chief algal toxin, microcystin, is on the rise all over the world and is a bigger threat to the human liver and nervous system than previously thought.
While the science on that is undisputed, some researchers have gone a step further by hypothesizing that microcystin and other toxins in nature might be triggering higher incidences of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — aka Lou Gehrig’s disease — as well as Parkinson’s disease. They also believe it may be attacking the brain in a way that makes humans more vulnerable to developing Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders.
The genesis for those theories goes back at least as far as World War II in the western Pacific U.S. island territory of Guam, and possibly decades before that. But they’re now getting a renewed focus because of Toledo’s 2014 water crisis and similar recent events around the world.
Such research is highlighted in a documentary released in 2017, Toxic Puzzle: Hunt for the Hidden Killer, which the Toledo Museum of Art is showing to the public free of charge at 7 p.m. Wednesday inside its Peristyle, 2445 Monroe St.
Lead scientist Paul Cox, who has published more than 200 scientific papers and four books, and filmmaker Bo Landin, who specializes in environmental films, will lead a discussion after the 82-minute screening.
“The film and our research show there is a fairly tight link between environmental health and human health,” Mr. Cox said.
Narrated by actor Harrison Ford, the film offers a look into what many scientists have wondered for years but aren’t all completely on board with yet.
That’s in part because the science behind algal toxins and other naturally occurring poisons is still pretty young.
Scientist Paul Cox, pictured, and filmmaker Bo Landin will lead a discussion after a screening of the film 'Toxic Puzzle: Hunt for the Hidden Killer' Wednesday at the Toledo Museum of Art.
COURTESY BO LANDIN Enlarge
When the 2014 Toledo water crisis hit, making tap water unsafe for nearly 500,000 people the first weekend of August that year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had no standard for regulating microcystin in tap water. That was a source of frustration for area water-treatment plant operators and public health officials, whose default was a recommendation developed by the Geneva-based World Health Organization back in 1998, when much less was known about microcystin.
America still doesn’t have a standard per se: What the U.S. EPA finished developing under pressure from Congress in 2015 was a nonbinding health advisory. States can choose to ignore it. Most don’t, though, because it is a recommendation developed by our nation’s federal regulator and is based on more recent science. Just four years ago, microcystin was one of some 115 micro-contaminants in tap water the U.S. EPA had under review.
In June, 2017, Elizabeth Hamelin, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chemist who’s part of a research group formed in response to concerns about the potential for chemical terrorism, told a standing-room-only classroom of nearly 100 people at the University of Toledo Medical Center that the federal effort to develop a protocol for diagnosing microcystin exposure was only about a year old. She said then that the CDC has “no idea of long-term effects [to microcystin exposure]” and also was trying to develop a clear methodology for diagnosing shellfish poisoning and exposure to other environmental toxins.
UTMC, the former Medical College of Ohio Hospital, and Wayne State University are collaborating with the CDC on microcystin research focused on long-term exposures.
Toxic Puzzle: Hunt for the Hidden Killer makes a case for why such research needs to be accelerated.
Although much of Lake Erie has been below recreational thresholds for microcystin this summer, it was “off the charts” in South Florida in 2016, according Mr. Cox, who described the multiple varieties of it as “really dangerous compounds.”
“We’re really concerned,” he said. “We think the government should be warning people.”
Last month, on Aug. 9, Mr. Cox was part of a team of researchers that asserted in a scientific paper that it is reasonable to believe South Florida residents “may experience an increased lifetime risk of liver cancer and/or hepatic dysfunction requiring hospitalization or transplantation” as a result of the massive cyanobacteria outbreak in Lake Okeechobee that year. The paper was published in the British journal Water Policy. Those blooms were blamed for fish kills and 11 manatee deaths in the St. Lucie River in the vicinity of Stuart, Fla.
“I think it’s very clear that exposure to microcystin increases the likelihood of liver cancer,” Mr. Cox said.
The impetus for the film, Mr. Cox said, is data gathered over many years from a remote village in Guam which suggested a high incidence of people there becoming afflicted by ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
“Our research was looking at cyanobacteria and animal feces. The common denominator is people there were getting a high dose of BMAA [in their diets],” Mr. Cox told The Blade.
Cyanobacteria is the scientific name for microcystis and other forms of blue-green algae that produce a variety of toxins, including microcystin. Technically, microcystis — which, at 3.5 billion years old, is one of Earth’s oldest-living organisms — isn’t algae. It’s bacteria. But it’s commonly referred to as algae because of its bluish-green hue and the way it mats up into scum on the water surface.
BMAA, on the other hand, is one of many different types of toxin — called cogeners — produced by microcystis and other forms of cyanobacteria. Of the nearly 200 different varieties of microcystin identified today — about 10 times as many as when the 1998 WHO tap-water guideline was published two decades ago — most of the research is limited to one, called microcystin-LR.
“I think the case is very solid now that BMAA cause disease,” he said. “It’s like smoking. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get cancer. It just means you increase your odds. Given that, it seems to be very prudent to me to avoid all exposure.”
Theories surrounding BMAA are hardly new, though.
According to a 2011 article in Discover magazine, 21 research teams from 11 countries were investigating the potential dangers of BMAA less than a decade ago.
Shortly after World War II, Army physicians encountered a strange syndrome that native people called lytico-bodig—the term lytico signifying paralysis and bodig dementia. Some victims had ALS-like symptoms, others exhibited the rigid posture of Parkinson’s disease, and still others displayed the mental fogginess typical of Alzheimer’s, according to the article.
In the 1950s, almost every household in the village of Umatac, along Guam’s southern coast, had at least one afflicted member. Researchers from around the world flocked to Guam. They thought there was something in plants called cycads, which natives would grind into flour to make tortillas, which was to blame. Then, in the 1960s, British scientists identified BMAA as the probable contaminant.
“Just when research seemed to have come to a dead end, the issue was revived by Paul Cox, then the director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden on the Hawaiian island of Kauai,” the article states, adding that natives of Guam also were known to eat a local fruit bat that feasted on cycad seeds.
Mr. Cox, who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyo., is perhaps best known for discovering prostratin, an anti-AIDS drug derived from the mamala tree of Samoa. He is an ethnobotanist, a type of scientist who specializes in the way living things are treated or used by different human cultures. In Wyoming, he serves as executive director of Brain Chemistry Labs, a nonprofit research institute.
In 1997, he was named by Time magazine as one of 11 “Heroes of Medicine” for his work. That same year, Mr. Cox, who got his Ph.D in biology from Harvard University, also shared the world’s most prestigious environmental award, the Goldman Environmental Prize, with Fuiono Senio for their work in saving rain forests in Samoa.
But to Mr. Landin, one of the most important things about Mr. Cox is his willingness to ask the “stupid questions.”
“He dares to ask the stupid questions that people don’t want to ask,” Mr. Landin, a biologist himself, said. “He opens up doors.”
But while the film makes the point that there is “reason to believe there is a higher incidence of ALS and Alzheimers in areas with algae blooms,” it also shows that cyanobacteria is so ubiquitous around the world now that it even has been found in desert sand. Cyanobacteria in sand, according to Mr. Landin, is believed to be a contributor to an ALS outbreak among American soldiers who fought in Iraq during Desert Storm.
Each ecosystem on Earth has different challenges. In the western Lake Erie and many other regions struggling with water quality as the population increases and the climate warms, it’s a matter of keeping algae-forming phosphorus out of the water, he said.
“Never take algae blooms as a minor problem,” Mr. Landin said. “They’re not a minor problem.”
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