Florida Red Tide, Education Through
2007 - 2008
Environmental Public Health Leadership Institute Fellow: Charles H. Henry, R.S., M.P.A.
Environmental Health Director, Sarasota County Health Department
1301 Cattlemen Rd. Bldg. A
Sarasota, FL 34232
Hank Topper, PhD
Co-chair, EPA’s Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) Program EPA,
Office of Prevention
I would like to thank the following individuals for the support and assistance provided
during my fellowship in the EPHLI
William Little, M.P.H., M.B.A.
Administrator, Sarasota County Health Department Andrew Reich, M.S., M.S.P.H.
Coordinator, Aquatic Toxins Program
Bureau of Community Environmental Health
Florida Department of Health
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A lack of community knowledge concerning health impacts of Florida Red Tide blooms increases human exposures during near shore Florida Red Tide events. As a result, Florida’s Red
Tide harmful algae blooms (HABs) cause significant increases in acute respiratory illness, as well as, skin and eye irritations. Efforts were made in Sarasota County, Florida, to inform the public during Florida Red Tide blooms using press releases and posting of signs at affected beaches. While successful, this effort also resulted in complaints and political pressure from the tourism industry which experienced cancellations and a drop in tourism revenue. Since tourism is Sarasota County’s largest industry, the question of how to inform the public, without adding to
existing economic impacts, became an important challenge. Applying a systems-thinking approach (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, & Smith, 1994) the Sarasota County Health Department (CHD) began developing better ways to educate the public on health impacts of Florida Red Tide. The process required Sarasota CHD to become facilitators and supporters instead of regulators which allowed difficult, but necessary discussions to occur. This new approach resulted in an on-going collaboration with local and regional stakeholders, as well as, tourism industry support for the development of an on-line public information system for our Sarasota County beaches.
Over the past few years, Florida Red Tide blooms have occurred along coastal Sarasota County with alarming frequency and, at times, with great intensity. This led to intensive scientific research activities into the causes, contributing factors, and effects of Florida Red Tide Blooms. Two areas in particular became a concern to the Sarasota CHD. The first issue was the lack of effective public notification when blooms were occurring. The second issue was a lack of public understanding about the potential human health effects associated with exposure to these blooms.
Recent studies, conducted by harmful algae bloom (HAB) researchers, indicate statistically significant increases in acute respiratory symptoms when humans are exposed to the aerosolized toxin (brevetoxin) produced by the organism that causes Florida Red Tide blooms, Karenia
brevis. Researchers have also linked residence in beach communities during Florida Red Tide events with significant increases in numbers of patients diagnosed with pneumonia at a local hospital (Fleming, et al., 2007). Because of these identified human health impacts, informing and educating the public took on a real importance for the Sarasota CHD.
K. brevis is an unarmored marine dinoflagellate algae that produces a toxin known as brevetoxin. The toxin is released and aerosolized as these single celled algae are destroyed or damaged through the normal surf action along the shore (Steidinger, 2005). As waves break, the toxin is released and picked up by marine particulates (such as salt and dust) and transported by sea breezes. If a consistent on-shore wind is present, these toxins can be carried several miles inland (Backer, et al., 2005). The understanding of these brevetoxin transport mechanisms resulting in
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human exposures becomes important to consider when developing a warning or notification system for the public.
Red Tide has been present in Florida for hundreds of years (Steidinger, 2005) and is a natural ecological component to the Gulf of Mexico. In recent years, there seems to have been an increase in the frequency and intensity of the blooms along Florida’s gulf coast. These blooms have resulted in massive fish kills and deadly health impacts to marine mammals, such as, dolphins and manatees. Researchers are discovering that the Florida Red Tide toxin produces both hemolysin and neurotoxin effects which have powerful adverse impacts on marine life (Steidinger, 2005). Florida Red Tide blooms have also impacted the quality of life for both residents and visitors to Sarasota County’s 34 miles of beautiful beaches. Aside from the smells
and problems created by large numbers of dead fish washing ashore, almost everyone experiences watering of the eyes, runny nose, and a cough (locally called the “Red Tide Tickle”)
when exposed to the aerosolized toxins from an intense bloom. Even worse, for those residents and visitors who already suffer from chronic respiratory disease, impacts are much greater (Fleming, et al., 2007). Because of Sarasota’s beaches, tourism is a key industry in the local economy. In fact, tourism in Sarasota accounts for over 15,000 jobs and more than 24 million dollars in gross sales annually (Sarasota County Government, 2007). The recent increased occurrence of Florida Red Tide in the Sarasota area has been blamed for causing negative economic impacts on the local tourism industry. Dead fish washing up on the beaches and the toxin’s affect on beach goers were having negative impacts on the local tourism industry. When Sarasota CHD began to warn the public about potential health impacts, (through alerts in the local media and the posting of warning signs on the beach), it only heightened the stress levels of a tourism industry who was already dealing with negative economic impacts. Lodging cancelations increased and economic pressures mounted to find alternative solutions to inform the public without scaring them away from the local business community.
A lack of knowledge and understanding about the health impacts of Florida Red Tide increases the occurrence of respiratory illness in residents and visitors of Sarasota County during near shore Florida Red Tide blooms.
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Behavior Over Time Graph:
Knowledge about the health impacts of Florida Red Tide has increased dramatically for health officials, but not for the general public. This graph over time represents the gap between the knowledge level of health officials and the general public.
This graph also shows the perceived economic impacts faced by the tourism industry and the increasing frequency of Florida Red Tide blooms.
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Causal Loop Diagram and applicable archetype:
This diagram shows how the initial attempt to simply notify the public actually shifted the burden to the tourism industry until collaborative solutions were developed.
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10 Essential Environmental Health Services:
This project links closely with four of the ten Essential Environmental Health Services.
Inform, educate, and empower people about environmental health issues: The main focus of this
project was to enhance and improve our ability to inform, educate, and empower citizens and visitors with the information needed to avoid or reduce exposure to Florida Red Tide toxins.
Mobilize community partnerships and actions to identify and solve environmental health
problems: The Sarasota CHD also focused on mobilizing community partners to work collaboratively on this project.
Monitoring environmental and health status to identify and solve community environmental health problems: This project seeks to monitor the respiratory health of residents and visitors in Sarasota County to help determine the true impacts from exposure to Florida Red Tide.
Developing policies and plans that support individual and community environmental health efforts: This project has secondary goals of working with local policy makers to establish policies that are protective of public health and policies that help reduce nutrients that may be contributing to Florida Red Tide blooms.