A new study published in the journal Lake and Reservoir Management has found that a dangerous toxin known as anatoxin-a (ATX) could be airborne around bodies of water with algal blooms. The toxin could be released from scum found on ponds and lakes into the surrounding air. Also known as the “Very Fast Death Factor”, ATX has many negative effects on fish, other animals and ecosystems at large.

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The study was conducted on a pond in Massachusetts after scientists suspected that the toxin, produced by cyanobacteria and found in harmful algal blooms, could spread into the air.

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ATX can affect humans and animals in various ways. The most common symptoms include lack of coordination, respiratory paralysis and muscular twitching in humans. It has also been linked with the death of waterfowl, livestock and dogs that drink this water. Besides the direct effects of the toxin, the algal blooms that produce ATX can also affect water quality. When the algae die and sink below the lake or pond surface, the decomposition process drains oxygen from the water, leading to the death of fish.

While ATX has been produced in water for a long time, the rate at which the toxin is being produced has increased in recent years. The toxin is produced by cyanobacteria, which can grow exponentially when fertilizer runoff from farms finds its way into bodies of water. Rising temperatures also provide ideal growing conditions.

“ATX is one of the more dangerous cyanotoxins produced by harmful algal blooms, which are becoming more predominant in lakes and ponds worldwide due to global warming and climate change,” said study lead author James Sutherland of the Nantucket Land Council.

Sutherland and his colleagues are warning people who live around bodies of water to be watchful. They said if a person inhales or comes in direct contact with the toxin, there is a possibility of serious health risks.

“People often recreate around these lakes and ponds with algal blooms without any awareness of the potential problems,” Sutherland said. “Direct contact or inhalation of these cyanotoxins can present health risks for individuals, and we have reported a potential human health exposure not previously examined.”

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Image via Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick / NOAA