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Scientists Find Increase of a Mysterious, Lethal Toxin in the Air Due to Global Warming

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Apr 7, 2021

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Image Credit: Wikipedia

The presence of a deadly toxin produced by blue-green algae, often present in pond scum, is increasing in the environment and also making its way into the surrounding air, which can potentially put lives at risk, a new study has found.

Scientifically known as anatoxin-a (ATX) — and called ‘Very Fast Death Factor’ because of its lethal properties — the toxin can trigger paralysis, loss of coordination, and even death, upon inhalation by humans. ATX is harmful to animals too, and has been found responsible for the deaths of livestock, wildlife, and even pets, in the past, in several countries including the U.S., Canada, France, and New Zealand.

Published in Lake and Reservoir Management, the study found that the toxin is becoming more commonplace in nature — a conclusion the researchers drew after analyzing samples from the water itself, as well as from the air surrounding the water bodies.

“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,” James Sutherland, lead author of the study and environmental scientist at Nantucket Land Council in the U.S., said in a statement.


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The toxins are produced by harmful algal bloom (HAB) in warm, stagnant water across continents, including Asia. HABs, which can severely lower oxygen levels in water bodies, occur naturally in the ecosystem; but have become more frequent due to pollution, disruptions in the food chain, and climate change, among other reasons. With global warming increasing the temperature of water bodies, HABs move towards the surface faster since warmer waters make their movement easier — and end up absorbing more sunlight, making the water even warmer, and facilitating more algal blooms.

ATX is known to trigger mass fish deaths. Its presence has been detected in India too, according to a study published last year. While the toxin-contaminated water itself poses a threat several species, the presence of the toxins in the air has lead scientists to worry even more.

“People often recreate around these lakes and ponds with algal blooms without any awareness of the potential problems. Direct contact or inhalation of these [toxins] can present health risks for individuals,” Sutherland said, cautioning against the “potential human health exposure.”

At present, scientists are trying to understand how the toxins are becoming air-borne at all. Until then, their advise to people is to stay away from water bodies with algal blooms.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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