Toxic Seaweed Washing Up on Florida Beaches Poses Health Problems

Local papers have been carrying the story of large amounts of seaweed washing up on Florida beaches and the cost of keeping the beaches clean.  A recent edition of the Miami Herald shows a photo of six women in bathing suits on the beach standing in the thick seaweed that washed ashore the previous evening.

In the July 12, 2019 issue of the Journal of Travel Medicine, Dr. Andrea Bogglid of the Tropical Division of Medicine Unit at Toronto General Hospital and Dr. Mary Elizabeth Wilson of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, discussed the fact that the seaweed causes health issues. The seaweed is the Sargassum weed probably originating in Brazil. When it decomposes it releases hydrogen sulfide toxic gas which can cause palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, vertigo, headache and skin rashes.  The authors note that since 2011, larger than normal amounts of the brown seaweed have been washing ashore in Florida and the Caribbean Islands.  They report almost 11,000 case of the toxicity reported from the seaweed on the islands of Guadalupe and Martinique in 2018.

Part of the problem is that local governments tend to treat the seaweed as a sanitation issue rather than a health threat. Physicians have little experience in diagnosing and treating the problems the seaweed can cause to those exposed.  In most cases when patients seek medical help the diagnosis of Sargassum Toxicity due to prolonged exposure is a diagnosis of exclusion. Treatment is simply supportive with fluids and medicines to treat the symptoms.

It is believed tourists and those contracted to clean up the mess are at risk. The researchers, along with marine biologists, are suggesting aggressive cleaning up of the beaches with workers wearing appropriate protective gear. They also suggest hotels placing physical barriers to the seaweed in designated swimming areas to prevent their guests from contact and exposure.

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