FORT MYERS, Fla. — Inside an air-conditioned lab in southwest Florida floats a summer scourge.
“They've been around, we think, three and a half billion years,” said Dr. Barry Rosen, a professor at The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University.
The ancient organisms are toxic blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria. Dr. Rosen is one of the preeminent experts in it; he and his team are working on a new study involving that algae.
“We just took our study to the next level,” he said.
Their study is looking to figure out what happens when blue-green algae goes airborne. A specially-designed machine in the lab may hold some answers.
“I’m going to turn on a pump that’ll pushes air through,” he said, as turned on the machine. “This is an artificial lung in many senses.”
Using air to move the water around, filters in this machine capture airborne toxic blue-green algae particles, similar to how our lungs would, if we breathed it in.
“You can see the clouds of the cyanobacteria moving around in there,” Dr. Rosen said. “We know that it probably gets us into our nasal passages. How much gets into our lungs? Is it a concentration to be concerned of? Because we find it pretty much everywhere.”
That could happen anywhere bodies of fresh water meet pollution from agricultural and development runoff. When coupled with summer’s high temperatures, blue-green algae can rapidly grow.
“They like warm water,” said Greg Tolley, executive director of The Water School at FGCU. “They start making more of each other in warm water, and so that's a concern we have. Looking forward with a warming planet is that some of these blue green algae blooms might be more common than they were in the past.”
They could also potentially expose more people to more blue-green algae in the future.
Just in the past month, blue-green algae blooms have taken hold not just in Florida, but have also been found in lakes in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and New York, among others.
“A lot of these algal blooms are actually indicators that there's something wrong with the environment and we're the people that are ultimately responsible for doing that,” Tolley said.
The toxins they create are potentially dangerous.
“The concentration that can harm you is very, very low. They're very potent natural toxins,” Dr. Rosen said, of coming into contact with blue-green algae blooms, “but the aerosols we know very little about and we're working on that very diligently. We need to solve that piece of the puzzle.”
In addition to the work Dr. Rosen and his team are doing, the Centers for Disease Control is also launching a study this month to try and figure out how blue green algae impacts air quality.