Op-Ed submitted by K.C. Schulberg, Executive Director of Calusa Waterkeeper and published by Florida Weekly on June 12, 2019.

What is going on with our water, and what is the potential risk to human health?

The summer of 2018 brought historic, unprecedented and catastrophic harm to the shores of South Florida, with outbreaks of both red tide and blue-green algae, harmful algal blooms that curtailed tourism, damaged our economy and caused massive fish kills and wildlife mortality. But is it only our marine life that is being harmed by these HABs?

On Feb. 19, Calusa Waterkeeper received a Southwest Florida Community Foundation Community Impact Grant, allowing us to dramatically ramp up our education and advocacy on the causes and impacts of HABs, with a specific focus on HAB public health threats and concerns. Since 2018, ground-breaking research — particularly on environmental toxicity and potential inhalation risks — sent flashing alarms that the health threats from HABs may be exponentially more dangerous than we surmised, lending increased urgency to communicating the most current data to a public starved for information.

To achieve the grant’s goals, we embarked on a threefold strategy: First, to gather a team of experts from a diverse gamut of the medical and scientific community — from research labs to emergency rooms; second, to generate an interdisciplinary discussion among those experts to exchange state-of-the-art data on HAB-related health threats; and third, to engage with healthcare providers to disseminate our findings to the medical community and to the public at large.

The team of experts we have assembled includes some of the nation’s top names studying this issue, like neurologist Dr. Walter Bradley; marine biologist Dr. Larry Brand; epidemiologist Adam Schaefer; researcher Dr. James Metcalf; “Waterkeeper” John Cassani; neurologist Dr. David Davis; marine science professor Dr. Mike Parsons; neurologist Dr. Elijah Stommel; clean water advocate Howard Simon; ER teaching professor Dr. Arthur Diskin; internal medicine practitioner Dr. Parisima Taeb; ENT-otolaryngologist Dr. Robert Zarranz; and RN Holley Rauen. Our first panel discussion with the team took place on May 3 at the offices of the Community Foundation.

In the coming months, we will conduct additional roundtables and filmed interviews. We will produce an in-house 20-minute HAB public health documentary titled “Troubled Waters” with interviews of our team, health care professionals and patients who have suffered distress. We will prepare a mass mailing about HABs to Southwest Florida medical professionals and public health organizations. We will hold two HAB public health town halls — the first on June 24, with a screening of “Toxic Puzzle” and expert panel discussion. The second is Aug. 5, with the world premiere of CWK’s documentary “Troubled Waters” and an expert panel discussion. In addition, we will develop in-service teaching workshops, offering continuing medical education credits for physicians and nurses in Lee County hospitals.

We are immensely grateful to the Community Foundation for providing us with the resources to offer this all-important service to our community. The work product created through this project, reinforced by concerted social media and public relations campaigns, will provide critical, topical and relevant news and calls to action to mitigate the extreme potential for risk these HABs may have on our community’s precious public health.