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Report: 4 Florida counties part of liver disease cluster

STUART | People living in areas with significant blue-green algae blooms, including the Treasure Coast, are more likely to die from nonalcoholic liver disease than those who don’t.

Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties make up a striking “cluster” with a high rate of both blooms and deaths, according to Ohio State University researchers. In fact, the death rate from nonalcoholic liver disease was nearly twice as high in the four counties as the national rate during the 12 years of the OSU study, according to data calculated for TCPalm by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the study found a suspicious link between the toxin, called microsystin, that’s commonly found in blue-green algae, called cyanobacteria, it did not go so far as to confirm that blooms cause liver disease, especially not in particular individuals.

“That’s a hypothesis for another study to look at,” said study co-author Jiyoung Lee, an OSU professor of environmental health sciences.

Finding a correlation is an important first step, said Edith “Edie” Widder, founder and lead scientist at the Ocean Research &Conservation Association in Fort Pierce.

“It’s shocking that there’s only one of these clusters in Florida — and it’s us,” Widder said. “Remember how seeing that a lot of people who smoked developed cancer led to the discovery that smoking causes cancer? We don’t want to end up 20 years from now with lots of folks with liver disease on the Treasure Coast because we ignored the warning signs.”

Ounce of prevention

Algae toxins can cause nausea and vomiting if ingested; rash or hay fever symptoms if touched or inhaled; and liver disease if drank.

People should limit how much fish they eat from water prone to blooms because thorough cooking won’t kill the toxins and boiling water only concentrates them, Lee said.

Read more on the St. Augustine Record.