Don’t put away that mask – it could help with blue-green algae effects

You may be fully vaccinated, but don’t throw away those masks quite yet. Researchers say you should save them for algal bloom season.

The COVID-19 pandemic set back research on blue-green algae, but one scientist said that in a small way, the pandemic also prepared us for the toxic blooms.

“It’s starting to heat up, I guess. And we’re starting to see more blue-green algae,” said Michael Parsons, Ph.D., a professor at The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University.

The algal blooms are right on schedule, but researchers are at least a year behind.

“We couldn’t get the project off the ground with COVID and things like that this year,” Parsons said.

He said his work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examining blue-green algae toxins in the air was pushed back because of the pandemic. That work is critical because research suggests inhaling aerosolized toxins could impact your health in the short- and long-term.

“There’s some indication that inhalation impacts your body differently. It can be much more damaging because it can be a more direct route to your bloodstream, to your respiratory system,” said Kim Popendorf, Ph.D., assistant professor with the Department of Ocean Sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami.

Filter samples to be tested against aerosolized algae bloom toxins. (Courtesy photo)

Popendorf said COVID-19 did help us prepare for this bloom season in one way.

“The square medical-style facemasks are really effective at removing particles and removing those toxins.”

Just before the pandemic shutdown, Popendorf’s team tested different materials to filter out the aerosolized toxins. They found surgical masks were so efficient that no measurable amounts of the toxins made it through.

Now, as COVID-19 restrictions are lifting, projects are getting back on track and the algae are blooming.

“We’ll be ramping that up again,” Parsons said.

You can finally take a deep breath, but perhaps from behind a mask.

“Now that we’re all so used to wearing them, this is a really easy, easy way to reduce your exposure. So yeah, hold on to those masks, save them for bloom season,” Popendorf said.

Her team also tested air conditioning filters and found that as the filters go up in efficiency ratings, they get better at removing the toxins.

Reporter:Veronica Marshall
Writer:Jackie Winchester
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