Forecasts for Red Tide air quality on the way

Government agencies are working on warnings for beaches affected by toxins released from the microscopic algae.

A lifeguard at Lido Beach in Sarasota County wears a respirator to help prevent breathing in the toxins released into the air by Red Tide. A new forecast may be able to provide warnings to harsh air conditions. [Eve Edelheit | Florida Beach Insider photo]
A lifeguard at Lido Beach in Sarasota County wears a respirator to help prevent breathing in the toxins released into the air by Red Tide. A new forecast may be able to provide warnings to harsh air conditions. [Eve Edelheit | Florida Beach Insider photo]

The Red Tide algae bloom now afflicting beaches across the state doesn’t just kill fish and other marine life. It also can cause respiratory problems for people.

When the bloom’s toxins get picked up by breezes blowing toward land, anyone who inhales them is likely to wind up coughing, sneezing and wheezing. For people who already suffer from respiratory problems, the toxins can produce more severe symptoms.

However, there’s no way of knowing in advance which beaches have bad air.

Now local and federal government agencies are working on fixing that problem.

Pinellas County has formed a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to produce a forecast for which beaches to avoid because Red Tide toxins are in the air. According to officials from both agencies, this will be a first-of-its-kind forecast.

"We’re excited to see how this comes out," said Kelli Hammer Levy, director of the Pinellas County environmental management department.

READ MORE: Answers to questions about Red Tide.

A spokesman for the federal agency, Brady Phillips, said the scientists working on the project hope to unveil it sometime this month.

The agency already has a forecasting tool that predicts which counties would have toxin-filled breezes, he said. Now, with Pinellas County workers collecting air samples as well as water samples on its beaches four days a week, the federal agency can use that in making the forecast for specific beaches.

"It produces a forecast every three hours," Levy said.

To create the forecasts, they use data collected by satellites to look at the location of Red Tide blooms, and combine that with checks on the wind direction and speed.

The goal is "to produce near real-time exposure levels" for Red Tide’s airborne toxins, said Barb Kirpatrick, a harmful algae bloom expert who is executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association, which works with the federal agency.

READ MORE: Is Red Tide affecting Florida's seafood? It's best to ask before you eat.

The results will be posted on a web site run by Kirkpatrick’s group. At first, Phillips said, there will be a demonstrator version for Pinellas County officials to use.

"Eventually it will be available for the public to use too," he said.

Their goal, Kirkpatrick said, is to produce predictions for "every beach, every day." If the Pinellas County program is successful, she said, they hope to expand it to other coastal counties as well.

The Red Tide bloom going on now was first detected last November. It intensified over the summer and crept northward until it covered 130 miles of the coast.

It reached Pinellas County in early September, dumping hundreds of tons of dead fish on the beaches and in nearby waterways, and driving tourists away from the local hotels. Scientists have called it the worst bloom in a decade.

READ MORE: Red Tide can affect birds along the shore.

Studies by Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota have found that the wind-borne toxins from Red Tide can travel up to a mile inland, depending on how strong the breeze is. That means even people who are several blocks away from a beach could be affected.

Generally the toxins make people start coughing, sneezing, tearing up and feeling an itch in the back of their throats. But the effects are so much worse for people with asthma or emphysema that the state Department of Health advises them to avoid Red Tide areas.

This article originally appeared in the Tampa Bay Times on Oct. 1, 2018.

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Craig Pittman is the environmental reporter at the Tampa Bay Times. A native Floridian, he is the author of several books about the state.