Written By: Jason Graziadei | Photography By: Brian Sager

Island researchers discover a toxic algae bloom can become airborne.

The phrase “Very Fast Death Factor” may sound straight out of a horror movie or science fiction book, but in fact it’s a very real nickname for a dangerous neurotoxin produced by algal blooms in some of Nantucket’s ponds. Not only was this “Very Fast Death Factor,” aka anatoxin-a (ATX), discovered in the waters of Capaum Pond along the island’s north shore, but scientists from the Nantucket Land Council recently discovered for the first time that it can become airborne under certain circumstances.

“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 Dr. James Sutherland of the Nantucket Land Council, the lead author of the research on Capaum Pond published in April by the peer-reviewed journal Lake and Reservoir Management.

The groundbreaking research made a splash in the science world, not just because of the toxin’s sensationalized nickname, but because it was the first time it had been discovered in trace amounts in the air. The detection occurred on a foggy September day following a windy night on the banks of Capaum Pond, the island’s original harbor and the location of the first English settlement on Nantucket. Researchers believe the conditions that night allowed the toxin to be blown from the surface of the water and remain in the air due to the fog.

Now, don’t be too alarmed. Unless you take a gulp of pond water spiked with the blue-green algae, it’s unlikely that “Very Fast Death Factor” poses significant risk to humans. While the toxin can cause neurological symptoms as well as respiratory paralysis, and has been known to kill livestock and wildlife that drink contaminated water, there have been no documented cases of such incidents on the island.

RJ Turcotte, resource ecologist for the Nantucket Land Council collecting samples at Capaum Pond.

But the declining health of Capaum Pond and others on Nantucket due to excessive nutrient loading is cause for concern, and plans are in the works to take a more active approach in addressing the toxic algal blooms that have become more common in some of the island’s ponds.

“The harmful algae bloom is really serious and has been for a few years,” said Nantucket Conservation Foundation Director of Science and Stewardship Karen Beattie. “We’re just lucky that the public can’t access the pond so easily.”

Capaum Pond is a special case. Take a look at it from Google Earth’s satellite view, and you’ll immediately notice its color looks different from Nantucket’s other ponds. “The bloom is so bad you can see it from space,” said RJ Turcotte, resource ecologist for the Nantucket Land Council. Turcotte was part of the team that published the research on Capaum Pond. The Land Council has been conducting water quality monitoring of island ponds for more than ten years, along with the town’s Natural Resources Department. Turcotte’s team has been focused on Capaum Pond and Gibbs Pond in the moors because both have had trouble with nutrient loading and harmful algal blooms over the years.

They had a hunch that the bloom in Capaum Pond that was producing ATX might result in the neurotoxin becoming airborne under the right conditions. Over several months in 2019, the Land Council researchers set up aerosol samplers around the pond with special filters, and after that windy September night that was followed by fog, the team collected the filters and sent them off to a lab in Florida to be processed for toxins. A few weeks later, Turcotte got the results back and realized the discovery they had made.

“We were surprised and it was definitely exciting to see,” Turcotte said. “It helped to propel us into the next part of it—which is how do we address it?”

Part of that answer is the management approach being undertaken by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation with the alum and algaecide applications, a plan the Nantucket Conservation Commission approved on April 22. Another part of the answer could come with the Land Council’s outreach to homeowners around Capaum Pond regarding their land-use practices to address the nutrient loading in the pond on a watershed scale to improve water quality.

But in the short term, what is the risk to humans with “Very Fast Death Factor” becoming airborne around the pond? “That’s the fascinating detail of this—we don’t know yet,” Turcotte said. “Even the EPA doesn’t have guidelines for if a toxin like that is inhaled. How far will it carry? Is there a safe distance if it becomes aerosolized? What if you live next to the ponds and get exposed to a low dose for years? Those are the questions we’re trying to address. We’re in the infancy of learning how all this works, how the chemistry works and how it travels through the environment.”

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