Protect Public Health | Ohio Sea Grant

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Protect Public Health

Projects in this focus area examine the effects of the algal toxin microcystin on people and animals and study whether microcystin is found in produce irrigated with algal-contaminated water

While safe drinking water is a major focus for public health officials and researchers, scientists are also working on other health impacts of harmful algal blooms and the associated toxins. The algal toxin microcystin affects the liver, nervous system and skin, and potentially causes cancer in humans. Projects in this focus area examine those effects, develop techniques to detect the toxin in biological samples, and study whether microcystin is found in fish or produce grown in algae-contaminated water.


Method Development for Detecting Toxins in Biological Samples

Principal Investigator

Kenneth Hensley, University of Toledo

Project Summary

Researchers at the University of Toledo are developing a method to detect microcystin compounds in human tissue.

Since harmful algal blooms are a relatively recent issue, scientists are still developing the tools needed to tell whether algal toxins or their

byproducts remain in the tissue of plants, animals or humans exposed to them. Accurately measuring these toxins in urine, blood and human tissues

is a necessary first step in understanding the ways in which these substances might be hazardous to health.

A research team at the University of Toledo is contributing to this effort. Led by Kenneth Hensley, an associate professor of pathology, they are

refining a laboratory method to measure how the family of algal toxins of greatest concern — the microcystins — can be found in the human body.

The team is using a technique called liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry that is able to separate and quantify several different forms of

microcystin as well as the related compounds that result when the body breaks them down.

The Bottom Line

By measuring how much microcystin remains inside the body after exposure, this technique will help public health officials

understand the potential health effects — neutral, negative or positive — of coming into contact with algal toxins.

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Fish Flesh and Fresh Produce as Sources of Microcystin Exposure to Humans

Principal Investigator

Stuart Ludsin, The Ohio State University

Project Summary

Many bloom-forming algae contain toxins known to be harmful to humans if ingested. These toxins may accumulate in fish residing in a bloom or in

produce irrigated with contaminated water. But until now, regulators have no solid scientific data to be able to guide citizens about eating fish

or produce affected by algal blooms.

A multi-college research team led by Stuart Ludsin, an aquatic ecologist at The Ohio State University, is trying to figure out how much of the

algal toxin microcystin is detectable in the flesh of fish such as walleye and yellow perch from Lake Erie that were exposed to harmful algal

blooms. They are also looking at whether the same toxin can be found in fresh produce that was irrigated with bloom-infected water.

The Bottom Line

A better understanding of how algal blooms affect fresh food that will help regulatory agencies develop guidelines for eating

fish or produce irrigated with lake water during an algal bloom.

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Evaluation of Cyanobacteria and Their Toxins in a Two-Staged Model of Hepatocarcinogenesis

Principal Investigator

Christopher Weghorst, The Ohio State University

Project Summary

Illnesses caused by exposure to cyanobacterial toxins — which come from hazardous algal blooms — are well known. That’s especially true for

microcystin, the bacterial toxin that led to a drinking water ban in Toledo in 2014. For those who drink the water, symptoms range from skin

irritation to stomach cramps, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, fever, sore throat, headache, muscle and joint pain, blisters of the mouth and liver

damage. Those who swim in the water may suffer from asthma, eye irritation, rashes and blisters around the mouth and nose.

What researchers don’t know for sure is how carcinogenic the toxins might be.

Enter Christopher Weghorst, environmental health scientist and associate dean for research in the College of Public Health at Ohio State. His

research will examine whether chronic exposure to drinking water containing microcystins as well as other components in cyanobacteria increases

liver cancer development in mice.

The Bottom Line

Coming soon…

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