“Water, water every where, and nor any drop to drink.” This quote from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge came to mind the other day while watching news feeds regarding a spectacular increase in TOXIC BLOOMS on lakes all across the country.
Life cannot exist without water and that’s why NASA’s primary test for life on other planets is evidence of water. But water is rarely pure; it’s the most common solvent, and the water in our lakes, rivers and seas can become quite toxic and DEADLY.
Toxic blooms that cause adverse effects are called Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). They grow naturally as a response to changes in the chemical content of water (like increases in nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runoff) or changes in pH (how acid or alkaline the water is). HABs can also deplete the oxygen and block sunlight from water, thereby adversely affecting marine life.
But HAB toxins also harm humans who come into contact with them. There are two main HABs that create the most havoc. They are Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae or pond scum) and Red Tide (from the Karenia brevis algae). So, here’s a suggestion: concentrated levels of harmful algae could be used as poisons in your next murder mystery.
Cyanobacteria – There are both toxic producing and non-toxic strains of these algae. Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that’s non-toxic, specifically because it’s free of microcystins (more on that in a minute). The toxic varieties (like what was reported recently on the news) should never be ingested. Consumption produces abdominal cramps, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. And more concentrated ingestion can lead to liver damage and severe digestive issues. Prolonged exposure to skin causes irritating rashes. They also adversely affect the nervous system since they are neurotoxins (adversely affecting our brain and peripheral nerves).
Most varieties of Cyanobacteria (50 – 70%) are harmful, and that’s because most contain naturally occurring poisons (neurotoxins) in their cells. These toxins are called microcystins and are primarily responsible for the health issues associated with toxic blooms. Microcystins are extremely stable (both to cold and heat as well as changes in pH). For that reason, boiling water does not remove them. Filtering is the only way to purify water contaminated with microcystins. For my fiction-writing friends, filtration is also a great method to capture concentrations of the toxin for drying into a powder.
Red Tide – This type of toxic bloom is most harmful to marine life, particularly shellfish in contaminated waters. Humans become ill as a result of eating the shellfish. This is known as neurotoxic shellfish poisoning (NSP). NSP exhibits in a number of ways: gastritis (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea) and neurological symptoms (slurred speech, memory loss, lack of muscle control). Symptoms can range from minor to severe, depending on the concentration levels consumed. It’s conceivable that a person could become totally paralyzed if enough SNP were ingested. There have also been cases of asthma-like symptoms occurring when the toxin was inhaled.
So water is not only the GIVER of life. It can also TAKE AWAY life when there’s toxic baggage wrapped around its molecules. Next week I’ll discuss more sources of death coming from the sea, so stay tuned.
Thought? Comments? I’d love to hear them!