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‘I Felt Like I Was Poisoned’; Toxic Cyanobacteria Blooms Imperil Region’s Ponds

In early August, carpenter Michael Forgione told his mother that he was heading out to go crabbing in the brackish waters of Chilmark Pond on Martha’s Vineyard. Carol Forgione, a 72-year-old nurse practitioner, wished him a good catch.

“This is the pond,” she said on a recent visit. “This is the entrance that he went into. And then the public entrance is just down the road.” 

Michael, 49, who splits his time between Costa Rica and Edgartown, said he waded out about knee-deep. Within three hours, he fell seriously ill.

“When you're crabbing, you're usually just up to the middle of your calves. So it's not like it's that much water,” he said. “But I felt the effects of it, let's say, within an hour of being out there.” 

Michael said he grew so tired, he lay down in a dinghy to take a nap.

“I woke up and I maybe spent another hour [in the pond] and then I just felt sick. I just basically tried to get myself out of there, but I was probably lost for an hour and a half,” he said. “Yeah, it really screwed me up. And I drove home and then I was on the porch of my mother's house, and she came out, woke me up to go downstairs and I, like, I couldn't walk.”

“By that time,” Carol recalled, “I think it was lucky he managed to get home because he was so not himself right after that.” 

Michael -- at 6’5 and 210 pounds -- was irritable, with swollen hands, feet, and lower legs. He accepted Benadryl and a glass of water, but insisted his mother leave him alone on the front porch. Twice, she went to bed, and twice, she came back out to find him drifting in and out of consciousness. 

“He was on the ground. I got there and he slumped over again. I woke him back up and he was even more agitated, more confused,” Carol said. “And I said, ‘Here, let me help you get up. Look at your feet, they're like crumpled. They're literally crumpled.’”

“You know, I felt like I was basically poisoned,” Michael said. 

For the next few days, Michael tried to go to work, but regularly left early, complaining of dizziness and pain. 

“Then a couple of days later, we saw that article [in the Martha’s Vineyard Times],” Carol remembered. “It was a letter to the editor talking about the algae bloom in the Chilmark Pond. And this toxin can be excreted. And he and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, my God, that's what happened.’”

Cyanobacteria: How It Forms, What it Does 

Months later, Michael Forgione is still intermitently experiencing neurological symptoms and numbness in his hands and feet.

He appears to be the first locally known victim of a toxic cyanobacteria bloom, but it’s unlikely he’ll be the last. These blooms appear to be a growing threat in the more than 1,000 ponds across the Cape and Islands, and right now, all that prevents another person from getting sick is a patchwork quilt of monitoring systems that vary town by town.

“Cyanobacteria are a naturally occurring part of a healthy aquatic ecosystem … and without intervention from human influences they're largely not a problem,” explained Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod (APCC). 

APCC is a private, nonprofit group that monitors cyanobacteria blooms for a handful of the 15 towns on the Cape. The organization also monitors ponds for private neighborhood associations that pay for the service. 

Map: Association to Preserve Cape Cod 

For years, APCC has warned that excess nitrogen and phosphorus are fueling cyanobacteria blooms in the region. Lawn fertilizers and backyard septic systems allow those nutrients to seep through the groundwater and into ponds. Add to those factors increasing water temperatures because of climate change, and what emerges is the perfect growing environment for cyanobacteria blooms. 

“So we're taking a species of algae that likes nutrient-rich waters that are warm and we're providing both of those stimuli to them,” Gottlieb said. 

A cyanobacteria bloom often makes the water look like pea soup: a dense, bright green. 

“Blooms sometimes look like paint floating on the water’s surface. As cyanobacteria in a bloom die, the water may smell bad, similar to rotting plants,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 

As blooms break down, they can release toxins, exposure to which has been known to sicken humans-- like Michael Forgione-- and kill dogs, birds, and fish.  

Toxic Ponds: A Warning

To Gottlieb and many health agents, scientists, and others, cyanobacteria blooms present a potential public health disaster.

“Much as you have an expectation that when you turn the tap on ... that no matter what town you’re in in Massachusetts, that you know you’re getting water of minimum quality standards,” Gottlieb said, “[the] same thing ought to be true... in terms of your degree of confidence that the safety of the water that you’re swimming in, recreating on, or taking your kids or dogs to is uniform across the commonwealth.” 

Currently, the state has no requirement for towns to monitor ponds for cyanobacteria blooms, which means some communities, left on their own, are struggling to keep people safe. 

NEXT: Part Two: Health Officials Struggle to Confront Toxic Algae Blooms


Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.