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Ancient bacteria in Utah waters blamed for deaths of pets, people

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SALT LAKE CITY -- For more than a year, a Utah family has wondered what killed their son.

On Oct. 4, 2014, Jimmy Davis collapsed while wake boarding with three friends at Utah Lake. The same day, two dogs died from exposure to toxins released by so-called blue-green algae.

"It’s not an unknown or a new thing. It's just that we're starting to see it more, even globally," said Ben Holcomb of the Utah Division of Water Quality, adding
"It's not a plant, it’s a bacteria, so it really is quite ancient."

Found in natural bodies of water around the world, blue-green algae or Cyanobacteria can grow exponentially during warm seasons, maturing into what scientists call a bloom.

During a bloom the bacteria can release two sets of toxins into the water.

One set of toxins, Hepatoxins and Nephrotoxins primarily damage the liver. Affected animals or people would likely experience nausea, jaundice, and fever, among other symptoms. There are tests to determine if these toxins are present, and medications to aid in recovery.

The second set of toxins, Neurotoxins are far more deadly, difficult to trace, and impossible to treat. In animal tests, a progression of muscle twitches and failure render the esophagus still, causing asphyxiation.

The Davis family suspects it was this group of neurotoxins that killed Jimmy.

Upon his arrival at Lindon Harbor on Oct. 4, 2014, Jimmy noticed the odd color of water on the lake (something scientists attribute to algal blooms) but also noticed something else: a person in need.

The Davis family says Jimmy jumped into the water wearing only swim trunks to help a man get his boat onto a trailer, which had become stuck when one wheel slid off of the boat ramp.

Afterward, Jimmy and his friends went wake boarding away from Lindon Harbor, when Jimmy seemed to collapse before his friends’ eyes during his second outing on the wake board.

"He went down on the water. He had a life jacket. His legs were on the wake board, he laid out on the water," said his mother, Nadine Davis.

Craig Dietrich, a toxicologist with the Utah Department of Health, says dogs and livestock are far more likely to die from cyanotoxin exposure than humans, die to their propensity to drink from natural water sources.

Dietrich said it would be possible for cyanotoxin exposure to cause death in humans, but added that no deaths in the U.S. have ever been directly linked to blue-green algae due to the fragile nature of neurotoxin molecules. They typically break down before they can be identified.

Several state and federal agencies have been keeping a watchful eye on Utah's waterways for blue-green algae, particularly since the bloom on Utah Lake in October 2014.

During the summer of 2015, signs posted by local health departments warned the public to stay out of the water at Big East Lake near Payson, and Black Ridge Reservoir in Herriman, due to algae blooms.

State officials would like the public to be aware of different kinds of algae they may encounter in Utah's outdoors. Most algae is non-toxic, and blue-green algae typically on releases toxins during rare blooms.

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  • bob

    “Stromatolitic cyanobacteria! Gather!”

    During the precambrian era, cyanobacteria were the dominant life form on the planet. Practically the ONLY life form. The evolution of green plants, which release oxygen as a poisonous byproduct, destroyed most of the cyanobacteria. Today, they only survive in extremely harsh, oxygen-poor environments such as hot springs…..and filthy, disgusting sumps like Utah Lake. (Who swims in that mess?) There are a few tropical lagoons, which are very oxygen and nutrient poor, where stromatolitic cyanobacteria still build rock “towers” called stromatolites.

    Such stromatolite-building bacteria were the source of petroleum. They produce what amounts to vegetable oil, which metamorphosed into petroleum over the course of a billion years. There are ongoing experiments using cyanobacteria and pig poop to produce renewable, carbon neutral oil that can be easily turned into very high quality diesel fuel. So they can be pretty useful critters. But they belong to a world that would have been deadly to higher life forms. it’s no surprise that they produce some pretty nasty toxins. We are not compatible with them at all.

    • Dr. M

      Utah Lake is not a “filthy, disgusting sump”. It water quality is rather good given it’s natural, basin-bottom location. Many people mistakenly equate it’s natural mineral turbidity with sewage pollution or the like. This type of pollution is very moderate in the lake. The mineral turbidity is the natural situation due to the high pH and abundant calcium, carbonates, silica and other natural minerals in the water. They form flocculant mineral particles that settle very slowly and are readily stirred up by wave action in this shallow lake.
      We do need to be observant and not plunge into water when a stench exists, particularly when associated with a blue-green bloom. Although the deaths mentioned may or may not have been triggered by toxins, we know there is a possible connection and should wisely avoid direct contact with, and especially ingesting, such waters particularly when a bloom is dying away.

  • Phycology Friend

    The esophagus does not convey oxygen to the lungs so a paralyzed esophagus would not result in asphyxiation

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