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Dangerous ocean toxin leaves government officials scrambling for answers

October 9, 2018

West Palm Beach, Fla. – Emily Fedeli and Abby Hackett love to relax at a secluded beach in the town of Palm Beach just off Sunset Avenue. Almost immediately last Sunday, the two college students started coughing and wheezing after dipping into the ocean. By Friday, Fedeli and Hackett joined a chorus of dry coughs throughout Palm Beach County.


“I have asthma, which was only making the coughing worse,” Fedeli said, struggling to breathe. “My throat was even burning and I eventually went to see a doctor.”


A red tide of dangerous algae blooms plagues South Florida, from Palm Beach to Miami-Dade County. This resulted in closing some public beaches for several days. But those not managed by county governments, like the one off Sunset Avenue, lacked posted warning signs.


“We were at an unguarded beach,” Fedeli said. “I had no idea other beaches were closed for an unknown airborne irritant.”


Karenia Brevis, commonly known as red tide, can result in respiratory problems, especially for those suffering from asthma, according to the Florida Department of Health. Recently, dead fish also started washing ashore. Despite the presence of this toxic organism in the water, state and county officials have made the opening and closing of beaches a confusing issue.


Initially, the red tides forced Palm Beach County to close public beaches on Saturday, Sept. 29, due to people complaining of breathing problems. Then, county-managed beaches re-opened by mid-week. Within a few hours, officials closed them again after lifeguards complained of eye, nose and throat irritation.


“I stepped out of the car on Tuesday for less than a minute,” Hackett recalled. “I could literally feel something in the air. That short amount of time was enough to get me coughing again.”


By week’s end, county officials decided to allow individual cities to determine beach access despite ever-increasing health concerns. Lake Worth, for example, posted in a tweet on Friday, “Patrons will be allowed in the ocean but they swim at their own risk, a red and purple flag will be flying indicating high hazard posed by a marine organism #RedTide.”


Water samples tested by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission confirmed red tide concentrations in Palm Beach County. It tested mostly in the moderate range, with a high range off the Jupiter Inlet.  Such high concentration of algae blooms could cause intense coughing and throat irritation among the general population.


“Red tide concentrations are patchy in nature and will vary in location based upon ocean currents, wind speed and direction,” Florida Department of Health spokesperson Nick Van Der Linden said. “Red tide algal blooms can change rapidly, staying in one place for months, weeks, or just a few days.”


The Palm Beach County Department of Health, as well as the FWC, directed inquiries about the red tide to the state’s health department main office in Tallahassee. Nonetheless, county officials remain in charge of beach closings.  


“The Department does not have authority to close beaches or restrict access,” Van Der Linden said. “This is a decision made by each local jurisdiction.”


The Florida Department of Health and FWC released multiple statements advising South Florida residents with respiratory problems to avoid the beaches. DOH and FWC also updated their websites with information on the red tides. A new FWC interactive online map, updated daily, shows the location and concentration levels of the red tide.


Meanwhile, information provided by Palm Beach County remains limited.


While health concerns remain a priority, there is evident danger for marine life and local businesses. If the red tide spreads and concentrations grow, those impacted can expect serious worries going into peak tourist season.


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