Calusa Waterkeeper Film on Algae Health Risks
So far this summer, the waterways of Southwest Florida have escaped the twin Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide menaces that plagued our region last year but they are imperiling other portions of the nation and world right now. You would not know our area is currently avoiding a water quality crisis, however, judging by the sold out, passionate, standing-room-only crowd at the Calusa Waterkeeper’s 2nd “Florida Water Summit” that debuted the documentary, “Troubled Waters,” at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater on Monday, August 5.
“We are humbled by the turnout tonight,” said Calusa Waterkeeper Executive Director K. C. Schulberg in his introduction, “and you will have a tough time staying in your seats when you hear our expert panel following ‘Troubled Waters!’ Calusa Waterkeeper began hosting these Town Halls here at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater just about a year ago, with our first on August 6 of last year, and while we have accomplished much since then, we still have a lot to do.”
Calusa Waterkeeper produced “Troubled Waters” under the direction of Schulberg, who has extensive expertise in the entertainment industry, having worked on more than 200 films, television movies and miniseries, in functions ranging from producer, production supervisor, line producer, unit management, location manager, marketing development, screenwriting and more, as well as spending a vast majority of his life in social and grass roots activism.
The 40-minute original film features expert scientists and doctors who explore the human health impacts of cyanotoxins and BMAA (a cyanobacterial neurotoxin) in South Florida. The health and scientific professionals include Dr. Walter Bradley, Dr. Larry Brand, Dr. David Davis, Dr. James Metcalf, Dr. Malcolm McFarland, Adam Schaefer, Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani, Dr. Arthur Diskin, Dr. Robert Zarranz and registered nurse Holley Rauen, among others, many of who were on the expert panel who spoke following the documentary.
The film opens with images all too familiar to Southwest Floridians from the summer of 2018: dead sea life and marine turtles, people wearing surgical masks and breathing from air machines and full-scale beach cleanup efforts, with the voiceover explaining that “Harmful Algae Bloom (HAB) Red Tide and Blue-Green Algae impacted and killed not only millions upon millions of marine sea life but affected people’s quality of life, with the question becoming, ‘What is going on with our waters?’” Local experts like Cassani, Brand and Dr. Mike Parsons of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) and the State’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force shared ideas and opinions.
Southwest Floridians explained that their exposure to the water, including from sea breezes, led to headaches and breathing issues. Dr. Parsons stated an FGCU experiment revealed air toxin particles small enough to exchange between your lungs and blood stream, both near and far away from algae blooms. Dr. Davis found BMAA in the brains of dolphins equal to those of ALS patients. Dr. Cox felt the toxic soup caused by Red Tide and Blue-Green Algae blooms may be enough to trigger devastating illnesses in people, “but we just don’t know enough yet.” Dr. Bradley concurred, saying frustratingly, “We physicians don’t know that answer or outcome, and that is not a place where we as physicians like to be. The Health Department does not track this information.”
Cassani concluded, “It is up to each of us to protect, preserve and restore water quality, not only for ourselves and our families but future generations.”
Up To Us
Following the film “Troubled Waters,” Schulberg and Cassani introduced the expert panel who shared critical information on the public health impacts of the Harmful Algae Blooms. Presenters were Dr. Walter Bradley; Dr. Larry Brand; Dr. Paul Alan Cox; Dr. David Davis; registered nurse Holley Rauen; Dr. Howard Simon; Dr. Parisima Taeb; and Dr. Robert Zarranz, all of whom are in the documentary.
Before turning the program over to the panel, Schulberg explained, “We invited all of our local elected officials to attend tonight, but unfortunately, only a handful showed up this evening. It is really critical that they participate with us to get this thing fixed, so stay on them and get after them to help us to solve our water problems.” Fort Myers Beach Vice Mayor Ray Murphy was among those in attendance.
“We have an extraordinary array of talent on this stage tonight,” continued Schulberg, “and are honored to have this caliber of people here to address our water quality problems. It is looking more and more like Southwest Florida will be Ground Zero for water quality and health issues so we have to charge ourselves to be the poster children to do what is necessary to make everything right. While sometimes it may seem depressing, I love the optimism I get from these people, that we have the ability to show the rest of the world what we need to do to solve this, as the remainder of the planet will pick up on our success, so it is up to us!”
Dr. Walter Bradley is a professor at the University of Miami Department of Neurology, who provided the initial introduction at the beginning of “Troubled Waters.” “I deal with ALS and similar diseases that may well be related to cyanobacteria.”
“I study the biology and ecology of algae,” said Dr. Larry Brand of the University of Miami. “Algae is the basis of the food chain, so if we do not have algae in the water, we do not have any food, but unfortunately, high concentrations lead to HABs. My research focuses primarily on the causes of nutrients that peak these Harmful Algae Blooms. There are a lot of toxins that produce cyanobacteria that we have yet to discover, so the bottom line is we can’t wait for someone else to measure and identify these. If you see an algae bloom, assume there are toxins in it; I certainly would not swim in that condition nor would I eat any seafood from that water.”
Right to Clean Water
Dr. Paul Alan Cox is the Executive Director of The Brain Chemistry Labs in Jackson, Wyoming. “As Americans, I believe people have the right to have clean water; don’t you think that? When you have passionate and interested people through all layers of society, like all of you here tonight, we have a role to play to fix this problem. You all have the right scientists and universities and leaders here to fix this forever, with solutions that will go all the way around the world that will work, as clean water is your right and responsibility and we stand ready in Wyoming to help you achieve this in any way that we can.”
“I support your mission for clean water,” added Dr. David Davis of the University of Miami School of Medicine. “My goal as a scientist is to show how toxins affect the brain throughout a lifespan: what will happen in a week and two weeks and a month and after a few years, so the questions I ask in the lab is how many people do HABs affect and how can we help them. Tonight is remarkable, as I have never seen such a passionate community turnout like this in my entire life! It is ultimately up to all of you to push for the changes that we professionals are trying to bring across through our research and data, so thank you all!”
Registered nurse Holley Rauen said, “This turnout really opens my heart, as each one of us here have a calling to answer our commitment to solve HABs. It is our right to have clean water, as water is life! There are hundreds of issues and potential solutions for clean water and all of those can be overwhelming, so I made a personal commitment to dedicate the rest of my life to attaining one solution, and that is to protect our coastal wetlands. To help do this, I looked all over the nation for a course that would teach me about cyanobacteria and HABs and found nothing! We need to translate all of this science into an educational program, and I am doing that right here with the cooperation of LeeHealth, to teach our local registered nurses about these issues, as they are on the front lines, performing intake and triage, so we will start with LeeHealth, then take it down the road. You all must learn to be better patients and health historians, so your physicians will take you seriously and not shut you out.”
The Dirty Word – Politics
“I am not the scientist here!” joked Dr. Howard Simon. “My Doctorates are in Philosophy and Social Ethics, but I spent a 44-year career working on changes in public policy with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). I will say the dirty word tonight – ‘Politics’ – because the only permanent solutions will come from enacting statewide and national health standards. I hope one of the purposes of this evening is to disseminate information about how we can all work together to prevent these potential water diseases from progressing any further, and how to involve us all in enacting these public policy changes, such as finding ways to replace voluntary Best Management Practices that do not work with enforceable statewide standards. The bad news is that your Legislators do not work for you but for the special interests. We recently had the biggest outbreaks of Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide blooms in all of Florida’s history and all the politicians vowed to do something, yet when this year’s legislative session adjourned, they had done very little, as they still work for the agricultural interests and developers at the expense of public health and the people of Florida.”
Dr. Parisima Taeb is a board-certified internal medicine specialist. “I became a physician because it is my passion to help people and educate them with the resources they need to protect themselves and their families, so when the health crisis struck last year and patients with HAB symptoms were being turned away or blown off by their own physicians, it became my job to provide better public health education. It is important that you as patients educate yourselves, because you may have to educate your own physician about HABs, as too many doctors are still blowing off their patients with HAB symptoms and the Department of Health is not doing what they should be doing. Stay involved to save our waters and save ourselves.”
“I am an ear, nose and throat disease specialist,” said Dr. Robert Zarranz of the University of South Florida in Tampa, “so all the experts in this are sitting to my right! I never thought of myself as an activist, but I now realize that I am scared, because I look at all of this talent on this panel, many of whom traveled from all over the nation to come to our community to study our water quality issues, so for all of these amazing scientists and physicians to come here, that is not a good sign, so now I am worried and am an activist, as no one else will do this for us!
“I read that the new Lee County Commissioner is an advisor to healthcare clients and my initial reaction was ‘YES! This is wonderful!’ then I learned he advises his clients on healthcare real estate who developed over 1.5 million square feet of property,” Zarranz said. “We don’t need more development but solutions to the problems that all of this development brings and causes to our community. We must hold the feet of our physicians and medical industry to the fire, or we will be sitting here ten years from now and not even remembering we were here today! That is scary, so we must find fixes for our environment and pass those along to the next generations.”
For more information on future screenings of “Troubled Waters,” local water quality issues or on how to join Calusa Waterkeeper, see calusawaterkeeper.org.
By Gary Mooney