Why you don’t want to be drinking cyanobacteria: ALS

This story by a writing mentor, Wendee Nicole, just won a best science story of the year award from the Society of Journalists and Authors. It's horrifying (but fascinating too) to think that a bacteria could be paralyzing people, or giving them Alzheimer's, and the revelation of that story; well, it's jaw-dropping.

A small sample:

Although frequently called blue-green algae, cyanos are actually bacteria that photosynthesize, or create food from light, which is why early scientists classified them as algae. Modern genetics shows they share no evolutionary lineage with algae; the classification is as scientifically accurate as calling a dog a plant.

Cyanobacteria produce a host of nasty compounds, including neurotoxins that derail nervous systems, hepatotoxins that damage liver function, and tumor promoters. Their blooms have poisoned wildlife and caused massive fish kills. In humans they can cause rashes, numbness, vomiting, and sometimes long-term liver or nerve damage. While “death by pond scum” has never appeared in an obituary, that could change: not only are blooms increasing worldwide, but scientists predict they will worsen as the climate warms and nutrient levels rise, when, for example, fertilizers from America’s breadbasket run into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico. Recently, burgeoning cyano blooms in the Great Lakes have garnered attention.

Based on the work of this man, Paul Cox, the story developed over many years, and ran into a lot of resistance, but now the tap water/ALS idea is being studied at twenty schools around the country. 


As they say, read the whole thing.

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  1. Wendee Nicole

    aww thanks for linking to my story Kit! Just found this, erm, googling myself :) Hehe

    September 4, 2013