MARTIN COUNTY — Tests by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection have confirmed toxins in the blue-green algae blooms covering the St. Lucie Estuary.
Even before the toxins were confirmed, the Florida Department of Health in Martin County urged residents to avoid contact with algae in the entire estuary, from the St. Lucie Canal to the St. Lucie Inlet.
“Now, knowing that the algae is releasing toxins, we’re continuing that advisory,” said Bob Washam of the county health department.
In late July, concentrations of Microcystis aeruginosa — a type of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, that can produce toxins — began showing up in blooms in the estuary.
Washam said late Tuesday afternoon the toxins were found in samples from three sites in the estuary: Hoggs Cove, in the area where the Rio community and the town of Sewall’s Point meet; Pendarvis Cove in Palm City; and off Harbor Point Drive in the Snug Harbor area of Stuart.
The toxins in Microcystis aeruginosa can be harmful to people and pets. Exposure to water containing toxins may cause nausea and vomiting if ingested and rash or hay fever symptoms if touched or inhaled.
Toxins in the algae can kill small animals in the estuary, such as shrimp and crabs.
In late July, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lab found Microcystis aeruginosa in all seven samples collected by the health department. However, further tests by the Department of Environmental Protection were necessary to confirm the presence of toxins.
In a related matter, the health departments in both Martin and St. Lucie counties reported results of recent tests for enteric bacteria.
St. Lucie health officials urged residents Tuesday to avoid contact with the North Fork of the St. Lucie River from River Park Marina at Prima Vista Boulevard south to Martin County. Testing revealed higher than normal levels of enteric bacteria. The four locations sampled were River Park Marina, Veterans Park, Kitching Cove and waters near Harbour Ridge. The advisory will remain in effect until results show consistent readings in the good range.
Martin County announced Tuesday afternoon levels of enteric bacteria at the sandbar in the Indian River Lagoon between Sewall’s Point and Sailfish Point had returned to the “good” level in tests Monday.
Washam said the department is still warning people to avoid contact with water at the popular weekend gathering spot for boaters.
The bacteria — which may come from stormwater runoff, pets, wildlife and human sewage — can cause upset stomach, diarrhea, eye irritation and skin rashes.
“We want to have a few weeks of ‘good’ results before we say the sandbar is safe,” Washam said. “Besides, it’s in an area where blue-green algae has been found, so people should stay out of the water.”
Other sample sites near the Roosevelt Bridge and Sandsprit Park in Stuart and Leighton Park in Palm City remain in the “poor” range and are also part of the advisory.
Bacteria levels around the Roosevelt Bridge have been “poor” every week since June 17, according to the health department. At Sandsprit Park, the bacteria levels have been “poor” since July 1.
Washam said bacteria levels at the Stuart and Jensen Beach causeways are in the “satisfactory” range, and the areas are considered safe for contact. Ocean beaches throughout the county are in the good range.
The current algae blooms and hikes in bacteria levels are more common when a combination of conditions — nutrients, low-salinity, warm water and sunlight — occur.
Local runoff from many days of rain and discharges of nutrient-rich water from Lake Okeechobee have contributed the first two criteria. The Lake O releases began May 8. On Monday, nutrient-rich freshwater has been flowing through the St. Lucie Lock into the estuary and Indian River Lagoon at a rate of almost 3.8 billion gallons of water a day.
WHAT TO KNOW
Here’s what you need to know about blue-green algae, also called cyanobacteria, that has been reported in the St. Lucie Estuary and the Indian River Lagoon:
Some species produce toxins that can make humans and animals sick, causing stomach and intestinal illness, respiratory distress, allergic reactions, skin irritations, liver damage and neurotoxic reactions.
Swallowing even small amounts of toxin can result in flu-like symptoms including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In large amounts, toxins can damage the liver, kidneys and the nervous system.
Swimming or wading in a bloom can result in skin irritation, hives, blisters and rashes.
Inhaling toxins can result in hay fever-like symptoms such as itchy eyes, sore throat and congestion.
Because of their size, children and pets are at greater risk for poisoning.
If you or your pet is exposed to toxins, rinse immediately and thoroughly with fresh water and soap.
To report illness from exposure, call the Florida Poison Information Center at 800-222-1222.
CLICK HERE for a video of the algae causing rashes and allergic reactions