Recreational and occupational field exposure to freshwater cyanobacteria - a review of anecdotal and case reports, epidemiological studies and the challenges for epidemiologic assessment
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Cyanobacteria are common inhabitants of freshwater lakes and reservoirs throughout the world. Under favourable conditions, certain cyanobacteria can dominate the phytoplankton within a waterbody and form nuisance blooms. Case reports and anecdotal references dating from 1949 describe a range of illnesses associated with recreational exposure to cyanobacteria: hay fever-like symptoms, pruritic skin rashes and gastro-intestinal symptoms are most frequently reported. Some papers give convincing descriptions of allergic reactions while others describe more serious acute illnesses, with symptoms such as severe headache, pneumonia, fever, myalgia, vertigo and blistering in the mouth. A coroner in the United States found that a teenage boy died as a result of accidentally ingesting a neurotoxic cyanotoxin from a golf course pond. This death is the first recorded human fatality attributed to recreational exposure to cyanobacteria, although uncertainties surround the forensic identification of the suspected cyanotoxin in this case. We systematically reviewed the literature on recreational exposure to freshwater cyanobacteria. Epidemiological data are limited, with six studies conducted since 1990. Statistically significant increases in symptoms were reported in individuals exposed to cyanobacteria compared to unexposed counterparts in two Australian cohort studies, though minor morbidity appeared to be the main finding. The four other small studies (three from the UK, one Australian) did not report any significant association. However, the potential for serious injury or death remains, as freshwater cyanobacteria under bloom conditions are capable of producing potent toxins that cause specific and severe dysfunction to hepatic or central nervous systems. The exposure route for these toxins is oral, from ingestion of recreational water, and possibly by inhalation. A range of freshwater microbial agents may cause acute conditions that present with features that resemble illnesses attributed to contact with cyanobacteria and, conversely, acute illness resulting from exposure to cyanobacteria or cyanotoxins in recreational waters could be misdiagnosed. Accurately assessing exposure to cyanobacteria in recreational waters is difficult and unreliable at present, as specific biomarkers are unavailable. However, diagnosis of cyanobacteria-related illness should be considered for individuals presenting with acute illness following freshwater contact if a description is given of a waterbody visibly affected by planktonic mass development.
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© 2006 Stewart et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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