Foul-Smelling Toxic Algae Triggers Air Safety Concerns

Jul 20, 2016

The toxic algae bloom gripping the southern Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River on Florida’s east coast has residents fearing the water and air they breathe.

The algae releases a foul smell as it dies and decays.

90.7 environmental reporter Amy Green traveled to the area.  She joins Nicole Creston in a conversation about the issue.

NICOLE CRESTON: Amy Green, you went to not only see the situation and how much algae there was but also to see what it is like to live with this overpowering odor. How bad is it?

AMY GREEN: It’s bad, and in some places very, very bad.

It smells like excrement and in the worst places, excrement times a million. I talked with one resident who told me just seeing a picture now of the algae brings back the smell back for her. And that is how I feel talking with you or, if I’m at home and smell the dog next door or change my daughter’s diaper. The smell is back in my nose and on the back of my tongue.

NICOLE CRESTON: Why does it smell so bad?

AMY GREEN: The problem is especially bad in canals and those pockets where the water is not as well-flushed. The algae can pile up to be inches thick and as it dies and decays releases the smell.

I visited a marina in Stuart called Central Marine. There the smell was so overpowering I literally held my breath as I pulled in the parking lot. When I returned the next morning I wore a mask over my mouth and nose and still felt nauseous after standing outside talking with some people for about 20 minutes.

NICOLE CRESTON: How are residents and business owners like at Central Marine coping with the smell?

AMY GREEN: People are afraid to breathe the air. They’re reporting symptoms like vomiting and dizziness, and Martin County is testing air samples.

NICOLE CRESTON: Amy Green, you were down in Martin and St. Lucie counties at the end of last week. Was that at the height of the odor and can it get any worse?

AMY GREEN: It was worse over the July 4th weekend. My news director asked me to poke it with a stick to get a sense of the consistency, and everyone there told me, do not do that.

I’m told agitating the algae causes it to release more toxins and makes the smell worse, if you can imagine it. I visited another marina in Stuart. There a local company was cleaning up the algae by drawing the foul water into a machine and then spraying the cleansed water back into the waterway using a large hose like a firefighter’s hose. There I worried about getting out of the car because I worried about the agitated algae and toxins.

NICOLE CRESTON: You’ve been a reporter for a while. You even went alligator hunting. Are you saying you were more afraid of algae than going out into the Everglades alligator hunting?

AMY GREEN: With the alligator hunt I was with two very experienced researchers. With this there’s a lot of unanswered questions. We’re awaiting more information on the safety of the air, and the health effects of breathing that are not well known at this point.

What is known is the effect on the ecosystem. It’s another devastating blow for the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon, which as you’ll recall stretches 156 miles up Florida’s east coast and into central Florida. The northern lagoon suffered a fish kill this spring that was the worst in modern history.

NICOLE CRESTON: Amy Green, your stories air Thursday and Friday. What can we expect?

AMY GREEN: Right, well, Thursday I’ll talk with residents about how they’re living with this horrible smell.

Friday I’ll have a report on how the toxic algae is affecting local fishermen.

NICOLE CRESTON: 90.7 environmental reporter Amy Green. Thanks for joining us!

AMY GREEN: You’re welcome.