--- Forwarded message ---
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Peter M. Ligotti)
Date: 96-11-11 19:39:23 EST
Subject: Fwd: More Unpredictable Side-Effects in Unpredictable Places: Ecosystem
from CNN web page:
Scientists seek clues about 'killer algae'
Fish die, humans become ill
November 11, 1996
Web posted at: 4:30 p.m. EST
In this story:
* Ancient one-celled organism is the cause
* But is pfiesteria responsible for human ailments?
* Related stories and sites
NEW BERN, North Carolina (CNN) -- Fish kills are
not unusual on North Carolina's Neuse River. but
the one in the fall of 1995 was different from most.
Dying fish swam in circles, disoriented. Dead fish
had large sores, or even chunks of flesh missing.
Millions of fish died over a period of weeks.
But what about the people who spent a lot of their
time on the river? Joe Lopes worked right in the
water, sinking pilings or building sea walls. He
began to develop sores, he says, but thought
nothing of it at first. But soon, he says, he
became very ill.
"They put me in the hospital for a few days,"
Lopes says. "Ran all kinds of tests, couldn't come
up with (any) reason why I was sick or I had these
sores on me."
Chris Ivers is a diver who inspects bridges for
the state Department of Transportation. He too
developed sores, he says, and had attacks of
vertigo with no apparent cause.
David Jones and Billy Conners fished the river until their
health began to decline.
"Losing weight, kinda confused," says Jones, "my
memory's not like it used to be."
"I've had sores on me in the past," says Conners.
"Everybody that's worked down on that river has
had sores on them."
Ancient one-celled organism is the cause
The cause of the fish kill was a deadly one-celled
algae called pfiesteria. Whether it also caused
human health problems on the river is a question a
lot of people would like to have answered.
Researcher Joann Burkholder knows pfiesteria can
be dangerous in a closed room like her lab. Before
they realized the risks, she and a colleague
worked around tanks of pfiesteria without
protection and paid the price. For both
researchers, memory was affected.
"I think the worst situation that we confronted ..
was that my research associate lost his short-term
memory and was unable to read very well or do
simple mathematics," Burkholder says. "We really
didn't know if he'd come out of it."
Medical specialists decided the problems
experienced by Burkholder and her associate were
definitely caused by pfiesteria in the air. The
lab has been remodeled to include biohazard protection.
And from the lab may come answers to
some of the urgent question about the
fish-killing algae. Scientists have learned a lot
about pfiesteria, an odd-ball organism that has
probably been around for thousands of years, but
was only discovered by humans within the last 10
years. They think it may lie dormant for long
periods, until something turns it into a
"It shows deliberate attack behavior ... toward
fish," Burkholder says.
Under the microscope, the pfiesteria cells can be
seen swimming up to a piece of fish flesh and
gobbling it. Given a drop of human blood on a
microscope slide, they gobble that too.
The scientists also found that pfiesteria is a
master of disguise.
"It transformed from little tiny stages, to stages
that were 40 times bigger, and it could do that
within a period of about five minutes sometimes,"
Man-made pollutants may trigger algae into action
But there is a lot they don't know about the
Jekyll and Hyde algae. One big question is what
triggered the massive pfiesteria kills last year
and in 1991?
Rick Dove has been watching the river for years,
first as a commercial fisherman, and since 1993 as
the river-keeper for the Neuse River Foundation.
He says that hindsight tells him the algae has
been at work for some time, "and in large numbers
probably since around '87, '88, '89."
Burkholder's studies have shown that pfiesteria thrives
when there are
high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the
water. These chemicals are found in fertilizer and
some waste water, and their levels have soared in
recent years as agriculture, housing, and
commercial development have increased along the
Neuse and other rivers.
"We've put so many pollutants in the water," says
Dove, "... that the river just doesn't have a chance."
Burkholder and her research team are tying to
figure out how the polluted water makes pfiesteria
flourish. They're also concerned about what
pfiesteria may be doing up and down the food
chain, and whether long-term exposure might put
entire fish species in danger.
But is pfiesteria responsible for human ailments?
Just as troubling is the long list of unanswered
questions about what pfiesteria does to humans.
"We do not have the toxins fully characterized, so
we can't take a blood sample from a person and say
for certain that the toxin is inside their blood
for instance," Burkholder explains.
But Dove wants to know if it's safe to be on the
river -- and safe to eat the fish when the algae
is on the attack.
"There may be nothing to be afraid of, or there
may be things we can do where we don't have to be
so worried about it," he says. "But again, we
don't have the answers, and that's troublesome."
And Lopes wonders if the sores and other
ailments will come back after five or 10 years.
Still, a state Health Department study trying to
determine if pfiesteria caused the human health
problems was inconclusive. Peter Morris, North
Carolina's medial epidemiologist, says that the
symptoms were inconsistent among those who
reported ailments, and that other causes can
create the same symptoms.
The state does plan a bigger epidemiological study
and further research. But for the people whose
lives are centered on the river, the stakes are
high and the answers can't come soon enough.
"We'll never be able to go back out there and fish
again like we used to," says Billy Conners,
"because of our health, and the river."
But Conners says that if something is not done
soon, the future generations will tell a story far
sadder than his own.
And the problem isn't limited to North Carolina --
pfiesteria has been found from the Chesapeake Bay
And until scientists can come up with more
answers, there's no way to tell when -- and why --
the ancient algae will go on another killing spree.