Aquatic Toxins and Your Health
Florida has an inviting subtropical climate along with 1,200 miles of coastline, 11,000 miles of rivers, streams and waterways, 7,700 lakes and more large springs than any other state. The Department of Health's (DOH) Water Toxins Program works to ensure that these waters are safe for recreation and that Florida seafood is safe to eat.
We protect the health of Floridians by educating people about harmful algal blooms and their toxins, watching for illnesses in our communities, and working with local, state and federal agencies to reduce exposures to aquatic toxins.
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Monitor for Illnesses: Florida's Poison Control Centers and DOH in Counties report cases of aquatic toxin illnesses to our program. We do electronic surveillance of poison control and hospital data to locate new cases of illness in the community and investigate the cause.
Provide Education and Outreach: Our program provides education to the health care community and the public in an effort to prevent and reduce illnesses caused by algal blooms.
Assist Local Communities: We work with neighborhood organizations, local health departments, and any interested group to respond to algal blooms and reduce human and animal exposures.
With over 80% of Florida's residents residing in coastal counties, many Floridians are frequently affected by algal blooms. Recreational activities like boating, fishing, swimming, and beach-walking are popular with both residents and tourists. In Florida, tourism depends on an abundance of healthy beaches, outdoor recreational activities, and seafood. Harmful algal blooms (HABs) can have unrecognized economic impacts on health care, fisheries, and tourism industries. During a bloom, people may seek medical care for their symptoms, which results in additional health care expenditures. Local county and city governments may be tasked with beach clean-up efforts which may last for months. If red tide toxins accumulate in shellfish, nearby harvesting beds are closed, resulting in revenue losses for the aquaculture industry. Local businesses including hotels and restaurants often report a decline in tourism during HAB events.
The Aquatic Toxins Program employs a robust epidemiological surveillance system to better understand the distribution and extent of human illness related to aquatic toxins associated with harmful algal blooms (HABs).
One of the main tools the Aquatic Toxins Program uses to detect and follow these illnesses is the ToxSentry® database provided in collaboration with Florida's Poison Control Centers.
Poison Control Hotline: 1-800-222-1222
Florida's Poison Control Centers provide a toll-free telephone number (1-800-222-1222) for use by the public and health professionals to assist in the diagnosis and management of patients with marine and freshwater poisonings and stings. The hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
The physicians, nurses and pharmacists who staff the hotline are certified as specialists in poison information by the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC). The Centers perform daily surveillance to detect the emergence of human health concerns and cases from harmful algal blooms (such as red tide), ciguatera, scombroid, sea-lice, and coelenterate poisonings and stings (jellyfish and Portuguese man-o-war stings). Surveillance queries also detect the emergence of important public health events involving rare marine and freshwater poisonings such as tetrodotoxin, Florida Red Tide associated Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning, and domoic acid induced amnesic shellfish poisoning. Such exposures are immediately sent to the Florida Department of Health (DOH) for investigation.
Aquatic Toxins Program Surveillance Activities
The Aquatic Toxins Program has developed collaborative interdisciplinary initiatives with various programs, both within the Department and with outside entities, to facilitate data sharing and to promote integrated response plans. These include:
- DOH Food and Waterborne Disease Program: data sharing and integration, synergistic development of outreach material, collaborations on web access development to FPIC database;
- DOH Health Tracking Section: identification of health-related databases with emphasis on evaluating associations with HABs including Florida Red Tide;
- DOH Reportable Disease Network (Merlin): access to database and notification of aquatic toxin related illness including neurotoxic and paralytic shellfish poisonings and ciguatera fish poisoning;
- DOH Epidemiology: "EpiCom" listserve program for notification of aquatic toxin related exposures and environmental health events;
- DOH Division of Disease Control and Health Protection: integration and sharing of surveillance data with Preparedness Coordinator, collaboration on surveillance and follow-up of cases reported to FPIC in near real time;
- DOH Water Programs: linkages with Healthy Beach and Fresh Water Bathing Areas Programs, Public Water Supply Program, and Drinking Water Toxics Section;
- DOH in Counties: collaborate on HAB public health response activities, provide technical expertise to local health officials, and facilitate data sharing among local, state and federal entities;
- Florida Poison Information Center (FPIC): collaborate on surveillance and follow-up of cases reported to FPIC in near real time using web-based access to secure database for poisoning information;
- Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Parks Service: outreach activities directed to both employees and visitors;
- St. Johns River Water Management District: collaborate to assess both ecological and health impacts from cyanobacterial blooms;
- Florida Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC): environmental data (bird mortality, fish kill reports, marine and freshwater sampling results related to HABs) are used to assess environmental health threats and as sentinels for human health impacts;
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): with satellite imagery of Florida applied to the detection of HABs, satellite health bulletins are compiled weekly and shared with partner agencies throughout the state to facilitate public health response activities; and
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): collaborate with CDC and partner states to develop a comprehensive surveillance tool to identify, document, and report a variety of HAB-related illnesses within the CDC National Outbreak Response System.
Some of the past press releases created by County Health Departments in Florida are displayed here as examples. These press releases are original copies and some of the information may be outdated.
Lee County Blue Green Algae Press ReleaseMay 28, 2015
Duval County Blue Green Algae Press ReleaseOctober 15, 2013
Lee County Red Tide Press ReleaseFebruary 25, 2013
Sarasota County Red Tide Press ReleaseOctober 16, 2012
Sarasota County Red Tide Press ReleaseSeptember 26, 2012
St Johns River Press ReleaseJune 15, 2010
Martin County Blue Green Algae Press ReleaseNovember 8, 2005
Escambia County Red Tide AdvisoryOctober 3, 2005
Duval County Blue Green Algae Press ReleaseAugust 12, 2005
The role of the Aquatic Toxins Program is to prevent and reduce illness. One of the important ways we do this is by providing accurate information to residents and visitors, local health departments, the medical community and other interested people. With this information, people can make informed and healthy choices about their recreational activities and seafood consumption.
The following documents have information on the types of illnesses people may experience if they come into contact with a harmful algal bloom or toxin.
This poster describes the types of fish which can transmit ciguatera, a useful communication tool for sport fishermen, restaurants, and the public.
'Have You Been Slimed' Blue Green Algae Card was developed by the Florida Department of Health.
This two-sided card is designed to educate seafood consumers on the top 10 facts and risk factors associated with ciguatera fish poisoning.
Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (CFP) is the most frequently reported marine poisoning world-wide. Exposures occur through ingesting seafood, especially large tropical carnivorous finfish. In Florida, CFP cases occur each year especially in South Florida. This poster describes the algae that produce the toxin, types of fish affected, and how to protect yourself from getting sick.
This Resource Guide for Public Health Response to Harmful Algal Blooms in Florida is the product of a collaboration between Florida Department of Health, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and other federal, state and local partners. It describes the current science of Harmful Algal Blooms in Florida, ways in which public health response can be done, and contact information. A more complete description of its contents are listed on page 7 of the document.
Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP) is caused by the consumption of molluscan shellfish contaminated with brevetoxins, which are produced by a marine dinoflagellate called Karenia brevis. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, progressive paresthesia, ataxia, myalgia, headache, vertigo, and sometimes reversal of hot and cold sensations (as often seen in Ciguatera Fish Poisoning). Contaminated shellfish are not detectable by taste or odor. The toxin cannot be removed by cooking, freezing, or other storage or preparation methods.
"Eat Puffer and You May Suffer." In Florida, certain puffer fish contain a chemical called saxitoxin. When this toxin accumulates in shellfish, people may get a rare illness called Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. This can also happen when people eat contaminated puffer fish from the Indian River Lagoon area. This poster describes the organism that produces the toxin, types of puffers contaminated, and how to protect yourself.
Facts and contact information about Florida Red Tide are presented in a business card format.
This fact sheet provides answers to frequently asked questions about Red Tide, and was updated on 8-22-2014.
Red Tide in Florida is caused by the algae Karenia brevis. At times, this marine algae can produce toxins. When people eat contaminated shellfish, they can get an illness called Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning. People can also get sick from breathing in salt spray during a red tide. This poster describes the organism that produces the red tide toxin and how to protect yourself and your family.
Top 10 Facts on Florida Red Tide in a rack card (pamphlet) format developed by the Department of Health in Sarasota County.
Report fish kills to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission at:
Report suspected illnesses related to aquatic toxin exposures or harmful algae to the Poison Control Hotline at: 1-800-222-1222
This hotline is operated by Florida's Poison Control Centers in Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and is staffed by professional nurses, toxicologists, and pharmacologists trained to assist citizens with their health and safety concerns.
Point of Contact:
Kendra Goff, PhD, DABT
Bureau of Epidemiology
Division of Disease Control and Health Protection
Florida Department of Health
4052 Bald Cypress Way, Bin # A12
Tallahassee, Florida 32399-1720
Under Florida law, e-mail addresses are public records. If you do not want your e-mail address released in response to a public records request, do not send electronic mail to this entity. Instead, contact this office by phone or in writing (F.S. 668.6076).
Phone: (850) 245-4248
Fax: (850) 414-9113