FAU Seeks Participants for Study on Health Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms

During harmful algal blooms, species of cyanobacteria release a variety of toxic compounds including microcystins, a potent toxin, into local waterways. Human exposure comes from ingestion, direct skin contact or inhalation, and can lead to a variety of symptoms ranging from gastroenteritis, nausea, allergic reactions and skin rashes to liver damage in severe cases. Despite numerous occurrences of red tide and blue green algae in Florida waters, our understanding of the long-term health effects of exposure to these blooms remains limited.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute are currently seeking participants for a study evaluating potential impacts of exposure to harmful algal blooms. With another grant from the Florida Department of Health (FDOH), they will continue a first-of-its-kind evaluation of both the short-term and potential long-term health effects among Florida residents. The “Long-term Effects of Exposure to Harmful Algal Blooms” (LEE-HABs) study uses a collaborative, multisite approach which includes researchers from Florida Gulf Coast University.

The research team currently has an active cohort of 150 participants and they are recruiting 30 additional participants this year (2022-23). They will be recruiting and collecting non-bloom data at the Cape Coral Public Works, at 815 Nicholas Parkway East, on Sept. 26 from 1 to 4 p.m., and Sept. 27 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.  

This latest study expands upon prior studies conducted in 2016, 2018 and previous FDOH studies from 2019 to 2020 and 2021 to 2022.  

“We have very little data on human exposure to these blooms despite the prevalence and intensity cyanobacterial blooms in South Florida,” said Shirley Gordon, Ph.D., principal investigator and a professor in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing. “Understanding short- and long-term health impacts is crucial to protecting Floridians’ health. By developing tools to measure concentrations of harmful algal blooms toxins in the environment and multiple human tissues we will gain a better understanding of this ongoing issue in Florida and elsewhere.”   

The study also is the first to evaluate the potential effect of exposure to COVID-19. Researchers are  exploring if there is a relationship between a history of being infected with COVID-19 and susceptibility to the effects of harmful algal blooms exposure.

The latest study involves a survey to identify the potential routes, duration and types of exposure to blooms through recreational and occupational activities. Researchers also will assess potential effects on individuals with pre-existing conditions such as asthma and chronic gastrointestinal disorders. Bloodwork including liver enzymes and renal markers will also be included in this study.

Algal toxin concentrations including microcystin and brevotoxin will be measured in blood, urine and nasal mucosa. The toxin levels also will be used to understand the dose-response relationships with self-reported respiratory, dermal and gastrointestinal symptoms. Urine and blood analyses will be conducted in collaboration with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is developing methodology to detect emerging algal toxins in human tissues.  

The study includes conducting environmental sampling of water and air to measure potential sources of exposure.

Researchers have developed a bio-repository and participant registry to store the data and samples in collaboration with FAU’s Clinical Research Unit within the FAU Division of Research. The purpose is to build an ongoing infrastructure to support the team’s long-term studies on the health effects of exposure to current and emerging harmful algal blooms toxins and serve as a resource for researchers around the state.

Malcolm McFarland, Ph.D., a research associate at FAU Harbor Branch, is co-principal investigator of the study. The research team also includes Kathi Harvey, Ph.D., a nurse practitioner and an assistant professor in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing; and Michael Parsons, Ph.D., co-investigator and a professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University.

For more information or to participate in the study, call or text 561-297-4631, or email Gordon at  [email protected]. Community participants will receive $25 in gift cards as an incentive for participating in data collection activities each year.

 – FAU –

About the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing:

FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing is nationally and internationally known for its excellence and philosophy of caring science. The College was ranked No. 11 nationwide by U.S. News and World Report in 2021 for “Best Online Master’s in Nursing Administration Programs” and No. 20 for the “Best Online Master’s in Nursing Programs in 2022.” In 2020, FAU graduates earned a 95.9% pass rate on the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN®) and 100% AGNP Certification Pass Rate. FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing is fully accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). For more information, visit nursing.fau.edu.


About Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute: Founded in 1971, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University is a research community of marine scientists, engineers, educators and other professionals focused on Ocean Science for a Better World. The institute drives innovation in ocean engineering, at-sea operations, drug discovery and biotechnology from the oceans, coastal ecology and conservation, marine mammal research and conservation, aquaculture, ocean observing systems and marine education. For more information, visit www.fau.edu/hboi.


About Florida Atlantic University: Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students across six campuses located along the southeast Florida coast. In recent years, the University has doubled its research expenditures and outpaced its peers in student achievement rates. Through the coexistence of access and excellence, FAU embodies an innovative model where traditional achievement gaps vanish. FAU is designated a Hispanic-serving institution, ranked as a top public university by U.S. News & World Report and a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information, visit www.fau.edu.