As his wife waved cheerily from a small spit of sand, Geoffrey, a visitor from Manchester, England, waded into Lake Dora and dipped their 9-month-old son into the warm autumn water. "Whee!" the father proclaimed as he bobbed the grinning baby boy.
"I'm not sure you want to be doing that," an observer called from the shore. "Hasn't anybody told you folks about the toxic algae?"
"Toxic what?" Geoff's wife asked, summoning her family back to land with a hand motion. "The hotel just said to keep an eye out for alligators, though supposedly they stay away from this little beach."
Signs alerting the public to the possibility of alligator attacks are prominent in Mount Dora's lakeside parks. But not a single cautionary sign has been posted concerning the threats lurking in Lake Dora's waters due to high levels of toxic blue-green algae. The toxins are known to exist in all of the county's 200-square-miles of inter-connected lakes in the Harris Chain. The lack of warnings are despite a growing body of evidence that neurotoxins in the algae blooms pose significant perils to human health. The effects can be both short- and long-term, ranging from skin rashes, nausea and flu-like symptoms to possible liver, kidney and intestinal damage caused by the toxins microcystin and cylindrospermopsin.
All of the fresh-water lakes involved -- including Lakes Eustis, Harris and Griffin -- are popular recreational destinations for tourists, seasonal "snow birds" and day-trippers from metropolitan Orlando. Fishing, boating, jet skiing and other water sports make up a significant part of Lake County's economy, drawing crowds of enthusiasts to communities from Mount Dora and Tavares to Eustis and Leesburg. Perhaps as a result, public-health officials and community leaders have been reluctant to sound the first alarm.
"This could be a real blow to the economy," said Richard Rose, who moved from Ohio to Lake County earlier this year because of the beauty and fishing pros-pects of the lakes. No sooner had he rented a berth for his boat at a Leesburg marina than he began hearing of toxic algae. "It's just my luck," he said with a laugh. "But, if somebody had told me earlier, I might have settled someplace else."
"It's a difficult situation," said the owner of a pottery shop overlooking Lake Dora. More publicity about the algae situation "could scare some visitors, but we don't want anyone to get sick."
What even many locals don't seem to realize yet is that, were the 10 major lakes in the Harris Chain located in Australia, all of them would be closed to the public. There would be no swimming. No splashing around. No fishing. Not even any boating.
"I wouldn't swim in Lake Dora," says Mount Dora Mayor Jim Yatsuk, who admits to being bothered by reports of young people diving from boats and toddlers tumbling around at the shoreline. "I know, just by looking, what lakes to swim in. You can see how dirty the water is. I'm also surprised to see people jet skiing there. I wouldn't do that either."
Yatsuk says that a "lot of local residents already know better" than to go into the water. But not all of them know why -- and very few tourists are getting the message.
At the Chamber of Commerce, located in a converted turn-of-the-century railroad station just steps from Lake Dora, Sue McHenry fields inquiries from visitors every day. She is well aware of the urgency to avoid contact with the water, but says her office gets inquiries only "once in a great while" about the algae. "Someone will ask how deep they are or whether it's OK to swim. We say, it's not a great idea. If you fall off your boat, jump back in right away."
Like other area municipalities and most county governing groups, Mount Dora has been officially mum about the subject since members of the state's Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force began releasing their preliminary findings a year ago.The task force had studied the problem since June, 1999. That was two years after biologists for the state Fish and Wildlife Commission first discovered the toxin cylindrospermopsin in Leesburg's Lake Griffin while searching for a culprit in the mysterious deaths of a large number of alligators. Since then, more than 360 gators have died, and "Cy" -- as the toxin is called -- has taken over more than 90 per cent of Lake Griffin's algae.
The amount of toxic algae found in area lakes, particularly Griffin and Dora, is particularly disturbing to scientists. According to World Health Organization standards for drinking water, the concentration of toxins in Lake Dora during one sampling this fall was high enough that, if any of the water was ingested, it would likely cause acute poisoning or long term illness.
When asked by Orlando Weekly about that finding, Mount Dora's Yatsuk said, "It's time to act." He pledged to "bring the matter up" at the next meeting of the city council and to urge it to approve the placement of health-advisory signs at the primary "points of entry" to the lake, including the marina and boat-launch ramps. "There has been so much on the city's plate lately," he said, "but sometimes it takes a call like yours to remind us of the importance of an issue." The mayor also said he doesn't expect there to be any reluctance among council members to alert the public. "It's our duty to provide information, and the public can decide from there," he said.
Still, most local government agencies have held back on informing their citizens and visitors, arguing that there is not enough firm evidence. Even agencies dedicated to public health and safety are passing the buck. The Lake County Water Authority told Orlando Weekly that it would be the responsibility of the various local health departments to issue any warnings, if and when they deemed necessary. But Lake County's Department of Environmental Health said that, before issuing a warning, it would need to check with the state Department of Health to find out the current status of its investigations. According to a Lake health department spokesman, a toll-free hotline (1-888-232-8635) established a year ago for people to call with complaints of water-related illnesses has produced "not a single call" from area residents.
However, the hotline number he cited goes directly to the state Department of Health's Poison Information Network, which monitors "estuary associated illnesses." Dr. Richard Wiseman of the network's office in Miami said the state does indeed have cases "currently being investigated" from Lake County. He also said that the toxins are "so severe there that it's only a matter of time" until a definitive link to the algae is established.
The Florida Department of Environ-mental Protection also acknowledges that it has received complaints from waterfront residents and recreational users in Lake County of ulcers, rashes, vomiting and diarrhea, and that the algae are suspected of being the cause.
Yet, only one jurisdiction in the county has had the courage to post any warning signs -- and only in one park. Earlier this fall, the county Water Authority placed notices at the Hickory Point recreation complex on Little Lake Harris near Tavares. One factor in its decision was the findings of the Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force. Another was the fact that three divers with the county sheriff's office reported painful rashes of several days' duration after swimming at Hickory Point last summer.
The signs posted at Hickory Point have been worded carefully to avoid creating too much alarm: "Blue-green algae have been found in these waters ..." the signs read. "Recreational contact with blue-green algae toxin is suspected of having adverse human health effects. Please contact your family physician if any ill effects are noticed due to contact with the lake water."
The water authority's director, Mike Perry, told Orlando Weekly, "Our board chose to put up the signs because we really didn't know the extent of the problem. We were about to have a water festival at that park `Hickory Point` and we chose to be safe rather than sorry." He noted that Hickory Point is the only park the Water Authority actually owns and operates, so his group could not post signs elsewhere without authorization from the localities involved.
Not that he wanted to. "Nobody knows for sure yet whether there are human health concerns, though we do know the `toxic` cell counts are quite high," he said. "But just because the algae contain toxic cells, toxins are not necessarily in the water. ... We have had anecdotal evidence of health problems but no direct clinical or epidemiological link."
Since posting its signs, the water authority has entered into a monitoring program, taking samples every two weeks, to find out how much toxicity is actually in the water rather than bound up in the cells of algae. "You have to beat the hell out of the cells to release the toxins," Perry said. One monitoring at Hickory Point showed "only about a third of the World Health Organization's danger level for drinking water. Of course, that can change from test to test."
To complicate matters, the WHO has not yet set standards for recreational contact with toxic-algae polluted water. Earlier this fall, the organization did issue a warning against swimming or fishing in lakes with high algae counts, but it did not specify any specific level of contamination.
The question of fishing -- which some Mount Dora residents do on a regular basis, trying to snag an evening meal of catfish or stocked tilapia -- is perhaps the most controversial. The state Department of Health has urged a "common sense approach to eating fish," according to spokesman Alan Rowan. "If the fish looks unhealthy, then don't eat it; and, if an angler is concerned, avoid lakes with heavy algal blooms."
But a report on toxic blue-green algae by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science and Technology Council is more direct: "Harmful algal blooms regularly threaten human health and marine mammals," it says. "The toxins found can contaminate shellfish, which can cause severe illness or death when eaten." In the summer of 2000, "algal blooms are suspected of sending nine people to the hospital with paralytic shellfish poisoning in Washington state." Those blooms produced the nerve poison saxitoxin, and the same type of algae -- which usually has been associated with red tide in coastal salt waterways -- has been identified in Lake County.
Florida's Algal Bloom Task Force has conclusively associated toxic algae in this state to the deaths of bass and gar, as well as turtles and white pelicans. But the verdict is still out on what such deaths mean to people who eat fish from algae-plagued lakes. Biologist John Burns, who headed the task force, also has reported evidence linking toxic algae to the deaths of house cats owned by residents along the shores of Lake Griffin, as well as livestock that drank water from area lakes.
For humans, drinking, or swallowing water during swimming, is highly hazardous, according to Burns, who is now director of the CyanoLab algae research center in Palatka. He has cited numerous incidents in other countries that should serve as fair warning to Floridians. In England, all members of a troop of soldiers dunked repeatedly in toxic-algae-infested water during a military exercise became seriously ill. Liver toxins from ingested cylindrospermopsin have caused several severe cases of hepatitis in Brazil. And, in Australia, 140 children and 10 adults were hospitalized in 1970 after ingesting water plagued with toxic algae.
Researchers with Australia's Institute for Marine Sciences have met with several groups of North American scientists, including the Florida task force, in an effort to share information. But, even after two decades, the Australians still don't have a sure-fire cure for the problem, and many of their fresh-water lakes remain off limits to the public.
What is known for sure is that blue-green algae always have existed, but their presence has increased dramatically throughout the world in recent years -- as has their likelihood to produce toxins such as cylindrospermopsin (linked to liver, kidney and heart damage) and microcystin (liver failure and cancer). The most likely culprit for their emergence is environmental spoilage by people, particularly industrial pollution and agricultural runoff. The toxic forms of the algae, a half-dozen strains of which have been discovered in Florida so far, are remarkably hearty and do not die off seasonally as most other algae do.
The algae are not always active in their production of toxins and don't constantly release them into the water. But, if attacked by pesticides, they actually spew more poison, as if in self-defense. Australians have had limited success in removing toxins from affected water by filtration, but boiling or disinfecting has shown no effect. The toxins also seem to be selective in choosing their victims, leaving some scruffier fish (such as catfish) largely unaffected while poisoning other fish and many birds and mammals.
The toxic algae seem to spread easily from one body of water to another, and sampling conducted by the Florida task force has discovered their presence in varying levels in an ever-growing number of Central Florida's lakes, including Lake Carlton, Lake Beauclair and Lake Maitland, all in Orange County. The task force expressed concerns that the toxins could soon be present in all of Florida's fresh-water lakes.
Among the many unanswered questions is how these algae spread from one body of water to another. Some scientists believe that birds can carry the toxic spores and that they can even be transported through the air by winds. Aus-tralian researchers claim that people have been infected simply by breathing-in airborne particles.
That worries avid boaters like Mount Dora's James Beam, who works with the city's annual Festival of Antique Boats each winter. Beam moved to the area 18 months ago from Lake Geneva, Wis., because he fell in love with the beauty of the Harris Chain of Lakes and wanted the opportunity to use his vintage wood-hulled 1960 Chris Craft year round. Now, he's concerned about the possible health effects of being splashed with water, and he is being much more cautious as he casts his boat into the water at public boat launches.
"I used to wade in a lot," he says, "and sometimes I'd fall in and get soaked. Now, I'm trying very hard to avoid any direct contact with the water. But that's not easy, and it takes a lot of fun out of it."
Like some other area residents, who have removed their boats from year-round anchorages in Lake Griffin and Eustis, Beam finds himself spending more time towing his Chris Craft from a hitch behind his car. He often takes the boat to the Intercoastal waterways on either side of the state. "It's particularly pretty around Sarasota," he says.
But Richard Rose is still using his boat to go fishing. "Come on," he tells two companions who are visiting from the Northeast, after they finish a round of coffees at a Mount Dora bookshop-cafe. "Let's go out and catch us some toxins."