Red tide researchers use a lung-like device to measure toxins in the air

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Matthew Seaver
Published: Updated:

Red tide and blue-green algae are two harmful algal blooms no one wants to see. While their effects on humans are different, we know the toxins they release can become airborne, raising many questions about what happens when people breathe them in.

Behind the visitor center in Cape Coral is a machine fundamental to better understanding harmful algal blooms and human health.

“So we have our impactor, which is our air sampling device. It’s got many, many filters inside of it. And that’s actually what we will analyze for the different toxins that we’re looking for,” said Miranda Barrington, research lab coordinator in the Water School at FGCU.

The toxins they look for are blue-green algae’s microcystin and red tide’s brevetoxin.

Airborne toxin research device. (Credit: WINK News)

Researchers use a device that acts as a human lung, breathing in over a 24-hour period.

FGCU professor Mike Parsons started air sampling four years ago when blue-green algae were bad in the Cape.

“One question that came out of that would be, well, what if there was a blue-green algal bloom and a red tide at the same time, and people could potentially be exposed to two airborne toxins? Would that be worse? Would it be a cumulative impact, more of a case of where one plus one equals three rather than one plus one equaling two?” said Parsons.

We don’t have blue-green algae right now, but we do have red tide.

“So, try to get our own numbers on what a red tide concentration would be like in the air so that we can compare it to times when there is a blue-green algal bloom present as well. As well as times when there’s no toxin or no blooms present, just to give us more of a baseline and more of a range of values of concentrations that we can expect to measure in the future,” Parsons said.

This artificial lung is set up at four locations around Cape Coral and Bonita Springs. Parsons says since they began sampling, they have a better idea of how to do it and what they’re measuring. So, if you’re passing by red tide or blue-green algae, you can better understand what’s passing through your lungs.

Parsons expects high toxin numbers as we experience a red tide but says, unfortunately, there will be cases when red tide is worse and the numbers are even higher.

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