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Making Waves: Episode 46 (March 3, 2010)

... The New England Red Tide Forecast for 2010 is Out ... and pharmaceuticals in our environment ... what you need to know

Those stories are coming up today. It's Wednesday, March 3rd, and you're listening to Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

(New England Red Tide Forecast)

Last week, scientists from the NOAA-funded Gulf of Maine Toxicity project said that we can expect a significant bloom of toxin-producing algae in this region over the coming spring and summer. These harmful algal blooms are commonly called red tides, and they're a chronic problem in the Gulf of Maine.

The term 'red tide' derives from one of the best known harmful algal blooms in the nation that crops nearly every summer along Florida's Gulf Coast. These Florida blooms, like the harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Maine, are caused by microscopic algae that grow out of control.

These algae are usually harmless ... and they're really important because they form the base of the entire marine food web. But at times when they bloom out of control, some types of these algae start to produce powerful toxins that kill fish and make shellfish dangerous to eat.

As the name 'red tide' suggests, the bloom of algae that turns up in Florida often turns the water a deep red color. But blooms aren't always red. That's why scientists prefer the term harmful algal bloom, or HAB, because the toxic blooms of algae that occur in waters around the world -- in places like the Gulf of Maine -- come in many forms and many colors ... and some have no color at all.

The one thing they have in common is that they're universally a big problem. They threaten marine ecosystems, they're bad for human health, and they cost local and regional economies millions of dollars every year through fishery closures, and recreation and tourism losses because vast swaths of water have to be closed off until the threat passes.

In the Gulf of Maine, one of the most damaging harmful algal bloom varieties is caused by a type of algae called Alexandrium fundyense. Although these algae pose no direct threat to humans, the toxins produced by Alexandrium can accumulate in creatures like mussels and clams that feed on these tiny plants, and this can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans who eat these shellfish.

This year's bloom of this organism could be similar to major blooms in the Gulf that occurred in 2005 and 2008. The 2005 bloom shut down shellfish beds from Maine to Martha's Vineyard for several months and caused an estimated $20 million in losses to the Massachusetts shellfish industry alone.

The outlook for the Gulf is based on a seafloor survey taken last fall of the seed-like cysts of Alexandrium fundyense. These cysts are deposited by the algae in the fall, and they hatch in the spring. Last fall, the abundance of cysts in the sediment of the seafloor was 60 percent higher than observed prior to the historic bloom of 2005, so this is a good indication that a large bloom is likely in the spring.

The cyst bed also appears to have expanded to the south, so the 2010 bloom may affect areas such as Massachusetts Bay and Georges Bank sooner than has been the case in past years.

While the scientists involved in the Gulf of Maine Toxicity project can provide an approximation of the severity of the upcoming season of harmful algal blooms, it's not as easy to forecast precisely where and when the bloom will make landfall. That's because bloom transport depends on weather events that just can't be predicted months in advance. Even if there is a large bloom offshore, certain wind patterns and ocean currents in the late spring and summer are needed to transport it onshore where it can affect coastal shellfish.

Still, the cyst abundance in the fall is a good indicator of the magnitude of the bloom in the following year. What this outlook does is to help state agencies prepare for monitoring harmful algal blooms and assessing public health risks. Early warnings can give shellfish farmers and fishermen the opportunity to shift the timing of their harvest or postpone plans for expansion of aquaculture beds. Area restaurants may also benefit from advance warnings by making contingency plans for supplies of seafood during the summer.

Shellfish beds are continually monitored by state agencies to protect human health. And when toxin concentrations rise above a quarantine level, these beds are closed down for a while until the threat passes. While these closures have a big economic impact, it's important to note that there have been no illnesses from legally harvested shellfish in recent years despite some severe blooms.

Gulf of Maine Toxicity Project researchers regularly share their field observations and models with more than 80 coastal resource and fisheries managers in six states as well as federal entities like NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. The project is funded by NOAA's Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms Program.

(Pharmaceuticals in the Ocean)

Next up, we're going to talk about a different kind of problem affecting our coastal waters.  Have you ever flushed your old, expired prescription drugs down the toilet? What's the fate of these pills? Do they just dissolve away without affecting the environment, or are these chemicals damaging plant and animal life?

Well, scientists are now studying this very problem, and they're finding low levels of pharmaceuticals in estuaries, rivers, streams, ground water, and in sediments.

These drugs get into our waters through the wastewater coming from our homes, but that's not the only source. They're also introduced into the environment from landfills and runoff from places like golf courses where sewage wastewater and sludge have been applied. And veterinary pharmaceuticals can come from aquaculture, from animal feeding operations, and from the family pet.

While the long-term impacts of these contaminants are largely unknown, the evidence is growing that some of these chemicals may effect reproduction in aquatic species or stimulate the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Wastewater, for example, typically contains any number of medications and hormones that people have either used or discarded. Many of these chemical compounds remain biologically active. And some of them, especially hormones such as estrogen, appear to significantly alter aquatic organisms.

What can we do to help? Well, we can do our part to keep unused drugs from getting into our coastal waters in the first place. That's the message in an article appearing in the latest issue of NOAA's Coastal Services Center magazine, a bimonthly publication aimed at coastal and state resource managers that's available online at

The Center is getting the word out to coastal managers around the country that even though we don't have all the answers about the long-term effects of pharmaceuticals in our waters, we need to start addressing the problem now.

Some coastal managers are already taking action. In New York, for instance, the state Sea Grant program hosted a 'Return Unwanted Medicine' event last spring. That effort drew in over 140 community participants and netted nearly 500 pounds of unwanted medicines.

And in Ohio, researchers are looking into how pharmaceutical compounds break down over time in an area called the Old Woman Creek reserve, one of NOAA's National Estuarine Research Reserves. What they've found so far is some good news ... with some important caveats. The good news is that wetlands and coastal areas are places that naturally break these compounds down over time -- this points to one of the many reasons why it's so critical to maintain and preserve our natural estuaries and wetland areas. The researchers caution, though, that we don't necessarily get the same benefits by re-creating human-made wetlands in other places -- we need to preserve our natural wetlands. There are still unanswered questions, however. While out wetlands break complex drugs down into new chemicals, little is known about the potential effects of these new by-products in our waterways.

Meanwhile, NOAA scientists are tackling the problem from different angles. Chemists are working to develop new procedures to better identify and measure a growing list of pharmaceutical compounds in marine waters and sediments -- compounds like synthetic hormones, lipid regulators, antibiotics, and antidepressants. Scientists are involved in monitoring efforts in several locations around the nation, including the Chesapeake Bay and the Southern California Bight. And researchers are performing laboratory tests to determine the potential for pharmaceuticals to cause toxicity in algae or fish.

So this problem is being addressed in many ways -- through research and preventative programs -- and we're learning more everyday.

While the problem of pharmaceuticals in our waterways isn't going to go away anytime soon, we can all do our part to help lessen the problem by disposing of our unused drugs properly.

Check for approved state and local collection alternatives in your area like community based household hazardous waste collection programs. In certain states, you may be able to take your unused medications to your community pharmacy or other location for disposal.

And check out to read the full story about pharmaceuticals in our environment.


That's all for this week.

If you have any questions about this week's podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean -- or if you have an ocean fact you'd like answered -- send us a note at

Now let's bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.