Mass algal suicide? There's a new weapon in fight against Florida's blue-green algae

May 27, 2021

Read more: Fort Myers News-Press

The white powder hit the pale green water with a hiss, spreading out with a quiet fizz as the neon-bright scum quickly dulled to latte brown.

That's what dying algae looks and sounds like, said Waleed Nasser, who was at the W.P. Franklin Lock in Olga on Thursday morning with a team from the Israeli company BlueGreen Water Technologies, and that's exactly what his product is designed to do: kill blue-green algae.

He and his colleagues were at the lock to demonstrate a new way to fight toxic cyanobacteria with powdered hydrogen peroxide, the same stuff found in mouthwash and household cleaners. It can be tossed by hand, broadcast from a boat or dropped from aircraft, Nasser says.

Michael Kratz, a graduate student at FGCU, does water tests after an application of hydrogen peroxide at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

A bloom of the photosynthesizing bacteria, also called blue-green algae, has been fouling the lock’s shoreline and many other sites along the Caloosahatchee for weeks. The bloom prompted warnings from Lee County public health officials, including one earlier that morning for the lock.

Nasser describes what happens after the powder is spread as mass algal suicide.

The oxygen in the product stresses the microorganisms, creating a condition called apoptosis – “a suicidal event in the community,” he said. “The initial chemical reaction will turn quickly into biological signaling affecting the whole cyanobacterial community.”

Hydrogen peroxide powder meant to kill the blue-green algae floats on top of the water at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

After the cyanobacteria are killed, the product quickly decomposes into its component parts: water and oxygen. “And therefore, it’s really not harmful,” said Nasser’s colleague Moshe Harel. “And because of the floating nature of the product, it moves along with the bad algae.”

Over the next few hours, Harel said, the timed-release powder will float on the river’s surface, slowly dispensing oxygen into the water, before dissipating.

Though cyanobacteria are naturally occurring microorganisms, overgrowth can cause problems ranging from obnoxious stench to dangerous toxicity. Some varieties have been linked to serious health problems, including liver and neurodegenerative diseases.

FGCU professor and renowned algae scholar Barry Rosen calls the demonstration "an interesting start, but we need proof that it has all the qualities purported by the company."

The product has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencies and the state of Florida, and is safe for river-dwelling plants and animals, Nasser said. The technology has been used in China, South Africa and other sites worldwide.

Bringing this kind of treatment to Florida was part of the landmark executive order Gov. Ron DeSantis signed days after coming to office, Bartlett said. The package included $2.5 billion to improve the state’s water quality, and a mandate to find new ways to fight algae blooms.

A major selling point for Thursday's pilot project: It's relatively cheap. The quantity needed to treat the lock area would amount to no more than a few hundred dollars, Nasser said.

Jordon Spears and Billy Callaghan of Modica & Associates distribute Lake Guard Oxy, a hydrogen peroxide, onto the surface of the Caloosahatchee River at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam to kill the blue-green algae on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

“And that’s way cheaper than shutting your economy down,” said Chauncey Goss, who chairs the district’s governing board.

This technology is one more weapon in the fight against blue-green algae. Bartlett said, but it's not a silver bullet.

"We're exploring these innovative technologies at different locations, so we're learning multiple different techniques ... and it's early in the season.  We have algae to test on, we have some time because big discharges (from Lake Okeechobee) aren't coming any time soon, but we absolutely have to be ready."

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