Massive Toxic Algae Bloom Stinks Up Florida Towns

5:30 minutes

woman on pier with sunglasses and surgical mass gesturing to a lake with algae
For Mary Radabaugh, a paper mask offers little relief from the algae’s pungent smell. Credit: Amy Green

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. A version of this story, by Amy Green, originally appeared on 90.7 WMFE in Orlando, Florida.  

Update: This story was originally published in 2016. You can read an update to this story here.

Mary Radabaugh peers over her mask at the toxic algae spread across Haney Creek off of the St. Lucie River.

“You can see the flies that are on the top of it. They’re eating the rot so that’s like the sewage that is out there. You can see the big brown spots that look like sewage.”

Radabaugh is manager at Central Marine in Stuart.

Here boats bob sadly in the blue-green algae that if ingested can cause nausea, diarrhea and vomiting and even can affect the liver and nervous system. But for Radabaugh that hardly is the worst of it, which is why she wears the paper mask over her mouth and nose.

“The smell is comparable to a Port-O-Let that’s been sitting in the hot sun for about three months. It’s really probably the worst smell you’ve ever smelled.”

Coworkers John Skinner and Austin Kemp have their own descriptions.

“If you took a Porta Potty that’s been out at a music festival all weekend and filled it with dead animals and then shook it up in a blender and then left it in the sun, that’s probably what it smells like,” Skinner says.

Says Kemp: “Good days it smells kind of like, it smells like rotten meat and cat litter. The bad days it smells like a septic tank backed up into a pig farm.”

[Did you know that the English word zero comes from the Arabic word sifr?]

For more than a month the employees of Central Marine have coped with the smell by wearing masks outside and in the office running air purifiers and air fresheners. At least one worker has thrown up. For Radabaugh the smell lingers even after she leaves the marina.

“You go home at night, it’s in your clothes. It’s in your hair. Even after you shower you have it in your nose. You smell it. You taste it in your mouth.”

Carla Viands steps through lush grass behind her home toward a sandy shore of the St. Lucie River.

“It’s not as organic as you would think it is. You have the hydrogen sulfide smell, but there also is something very chemical-smelling about it. It’s not a normal smell.”

Lapping waves deliver wasabi-like bits of toxic algae, leaving it to rot near the carcass of a fish.

Viands and her husband have lived here for three years. She worries about breathing the air and wonders whether it’s making her husband sick.

“He actually is a little bit dizzy in the morning, and I see him walk down the countertop with his hand like this. And I’m like, wow. I don’t know if that’s from living on the water or not, or blood pressure medicine. But it kind of makes you wonder.”

The Viands plan to move in August closer to the St. Lucie Inlet where they hope the smell won’t be so bad.

The toxic algae bloom is the worst in modern history here where the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Atlantic Ocean converge. Some 160 billion gallons of polluted water have been flushed from a rain-swollen Lake Okeechobee to the area since January, triggering the widespread bloom that has prompted emergency declarations in three counties.

It likely will last through the summer, making this a smelly one.

You can read an update to this story here

Segment Guests

Amy Green

Amy Green is a Environmental Reporter with WMFE. She’s based in Orlando, Florida.

Segment Transcript

SPEAKER 1: And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.



SPEAKER 4: St. Louis Public Radio.

SPEAKER 5: Iowa Public Radio News.

SPEAKER 1: Local science stories of national significance. Summer, as you know, with the warmer weather is the season when algal blooms start to pop up. That’s when colonies of algae grow out of control in lakes and rivers and beaches. This summer, there have been some doozies.

Some reports of blooms in Massachusetts, North Carolina, and other states. But Florida has been hard hit this summer with a bloom taking hold in the state’s largest lake, Lake Okeechobee. Some reports have the bloom spreading to over 100 miles of water. Amy Greene is here to fill us in on that story.

She’s an environmental reporter with WMFE in Orlando. Welcome to Science Friday, Amy.

AMY GREENE: It’s nice to talk with you.

SPEAKER 1: There was an algal bloom on Lake Okeechobee in Florida two years ago. So what’s different about this one?

AMY GREENE: It’s just another step in this trend that we’re seeing where every summer this time of year, we’re seeing these algae blooms, some of them toxic. And it’s just becoming kind of a bigger problem and a more frequent problem in the state of Florida.

SPEAKER 1: Well, is this one toxic?

AMY GREENE: Yes, certainly in some places, the algae is testing positive for toxicity. And that’s one thing that makes this allergy especially dangerous or something people should be especially cautious of. This algae, It’s a living organism. And so it lives and it dies. And so a waterway that may test negative for toxicity one day, the next day it could be positive.

And so residents who live along these waterways really should take care and really should stay away from this water, because it’s really hard to know how this algae is going to test from one day to the next.

SPEAKER 1: To get an algae bloom that big, it’s got to eat something to grow, doesn’t it? What is it feeding on?

AMY GREENE: Yeah, well what we’re kind of seeing here in the state of Florida is the consequence of two problems, and the main problem is nutrients. That’s the main thing that this algae thrives on. Nutrient pollution is something that comes from fertilizers that people use to make their lawns green, farmers use it on crop lands. And in the same way, nutrients help your lawn to look green.

It also feeds this algae. And so in the state of Florida where we’ve had such dramatic population growth in the past few decades, as the population grows, as the nutrient pollution grows and becomes a bigger problem in waterways, that’s one of the things that’s really feeding this algae.

SPEAKER 1: And we get lots of intense weather and hurricanes. Do hurricanes have anything to do with moving the algae around?

AMY GREENE: Well, the other problem that we’re seeing with these algae blooms in the state of Florida is the fact that Florida’s waterways have been just dramatically altered to make way for the state’s booming population. A century ago, most of the state was under water. We had the Florida Everglades.

Well today, the state, south Florida has been dramatically drained for population growth. And so when the waterways are very full, are very water swollen as the case is with Lake Okeechobee, they have to release that water. And that water has to go somewhere. And so it flows into the coastal estuaries.

Toxic algae needs fresh water to thrive, and as those estuaries become more full of fresh water, that again helps this algae to thrive. And so that’s why we’re seeing this algae in Lake Okeechobee and the coastal estuaries to the east and west of the state’s largest lake.

SPEAKER 1: That’s fascinating. I know you’re about to go on a boat with a fisherman for a story. How are the residents dealing with this?

AMY GREENE: Well, here in Clewiston, which is where I am, and this is a town that’s just on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, this is the town where the economy like so many others along Florida waterways is very much based on fishing and boating and all of these things. And so here Clewiston, one of the things this fisherman, the message he’s trying to get out is look, there still is fishing in Lake Okeechobee. There are still things to do on Florida’s waterways.

One of the reasons this is such a big problem in Florida is because our economy is so based on our environment. People come here to go to the beach and to go boating. And so–

SPEAKER 1: So the algae blooms are really wrecking that whole economic possibility.

AMY GREENE: That’s a real worry.

SPEAKER 1: Amy Greene, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. She’s an environmental reporter with WMFE in Orlando. And you can read her stories about the Florida algal blooms on our website, sciencefriday.com/florida. When we take a break, we’re going to come back. And you’ve heard the word superbug.

I bet you’re thinking of bacteria, but what happens when a yeast that’s a fungus goes rogue? We’ll give you some answers after the break. Stay with us.

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