Algae and Motor Neuron Disease: Diatoms complicate the picture

30 January 2014

Diatoms - a new source of BMAA (Photo: Bill Harding)

Diatoms – a new source of BMAA (Photo: Bill Harding)

Until now we have believed that the production of beta-methyl amino alanine (BMAA), thought to be implicated with neurodegenerative brain disorders (ALS-PDC), was limited to the blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria). Since 2004 we have learnt that all species of cyanobacteria, or almost all, produce this toxic amino acid.  This finding, backed by some early research, suggested that environmental exposure to lakes or reservoirs containing cyanobacteria, or drinking water derived therefrom, may be a cause for this debilitating complex of diseases.

That was until this month (January 2014).

Beta-methyl amino alanine

Beta-methyl amino alanine

A group of researchers have demonstrated that various species of diatoms, the most prolific group of algae on the planet, also produce BMAA.  If the production of BMAA is more widely spread across the diatom genera then this finding significantly alters the level of risk of exposure thereto.  The work also demonstrates that higher organisms, eukaryotes, can produce BMAA.

Jiang and co-authors conclude, inter alia,  that:

Taken together, the data reported here give a clear answer supported by solid evidence that BMAA is not exclusively produced by cyanobacteria. As diatoms are a major bloom- forming phytoplankton in aquatic environments, the impact of this discovery suggests new bioaccumulation routes and that the risk of human exposure may have increased tremendously. 

(search this blog for several other articles on BMAA)

Be prepared for seasonal blue-green algal blooms

24 December 2013

Blue-green algal blooms are seasonally-common right now!  (Photo: Bill Harding)

Blue-green algal blooms are seasonally-common right now! (Photo: Bill Harding)

It’s that time of year in South Africa again – temperatures have warmed up and so have nutrient-enriched dams and ponds.  Many have developed algal blooms that could be toxic, so beware!

Droplets contains lots of useful information about blue-green algae and their toxins.  In the USA, the Centre for Disease Control has produced a very useful facts sheet that provides all the essential background.  South Africa does not have any resources focussed on algal blooms (!) or where to get help should one develop problems after being in contact with toxic algae.  DH Environmental Consulting can be approached for guidance and we have ability for rapid on-site toxin testing and algal identification.  Algal blooms pose a threat  to humans, pets and livestock.  They should not be underestimated.

We will shortly be releasing an App that will enable users to send us details of algal blooms they come across so that we can build a geographic database of bloom occurrence.  In the meantime you are welcome to email us information and photographs of what you saw, to

Merry Xmas!

P from Poo. Sewage treatment plant turns human excrement into high-quality fertiliser

6 November 2013


Recovering P from Poo!  Good news for environmental protection!

Recovering P from Poo! Good news for environmental protection! (Photo: Mark Berry)

Sky News this morning carried a very welcome insert – news of the first wastewater treatment plant in Europe to recover phosphorus from sewage – a long overdue event but a major step forward nonetheless! Read more »

Industry has still not grasped water quality-related risks

3 November 2013

Screen shot 2011-08-07 at 13.31.17530 investors, whose combined investments total $57 trillion, approached Deloitte to produce a “water risk” report based on data provided by 180 companies listed on the FTSE Global 500 Equity Index. The Deloitte report , which slams these large firms for misguided water risk management, is summarised by Environmental Leader (31 Oct 2013):

Read more »

Paardevlei can have its original name back now

29 October 2013

Flaminke Valey (now known as Paardevlei) circa 1700s

Flaminke Valey (centre left. now known as Paardevlei) circa 1700s

Paardevlei before rehabilitation (Photo: Bill Harding)

Paardevlei before rehabilitation (Photo: Bill Harding)

Paardevlei, a shallow and much-modified vlei south of Somerset West, used to be known as Flamingo Vlei.  OK, this was back in the 1700s – the map above shows it as Flaminke Valey [center left], with the then much larger Zeekoe Valey (at Sitari, north of Maccassar) just to the north. Read more »

Big problems at Water Affairs

11 September 2013

Photo: Bill Harding

Just how broken is Water Affairs? Photo: Bill Harding

More than a year ago Droplets ran a post entitled “Just how broken is Water Affairs” – something of a desperation query about the seemingly parlous state of this crucial state entity.  After all we are an arid country and management of water resources is a fundamental need that needs to be managed with top-notch skills.

It appears that this is not happening, at all.  In a report released today by the Minister in the Presidency, it was revealed that eighty percent (yes, eighty, not eight) of government departments “do not comply with service delivery” (targets).  Even more shocking, if this is at all possible, is that Water Affairs ranked as one of the ‘three worst’!

What the hell is going on? (but I also wonder how these findings ever saw the light of day?)

Oil exploration threatens African lakes and the Virunga World Heritage Site

2 August 2013

This post is reproduced with the permission of The BioFresh Blog:

Virguna’s Lake Edward under threat from oil exploration: WWF launches global campaign calling for Soco International to respect World Heritage Site.

This guest post by Dr Susanne Schmitt flags the significance for Africa’s freshwater biodiversity of WWF’s major new campaign to stop oil exploration in the Virunga World Heritage Site. Susanne isWWF-UK’s Extractive and Infrastructure Manager. Read more »

South African industry has not yet grasped the full extent of the water crisis threat

24 July 2013

A report by the National Business Initiative (NBI) has revealed that 70% of companies who responded to a survey have experienced financial constraints due to water issues.  These issues remain focussed on water scarcity and continue to be apparently ignorant of the dual threat of too little water that is of dubious quality.  Time will tell if industry will grasp the reality in time (search for Water Crisis on this blog for more information).  Simple Math = (you have 100 liters of water but if 40 liters are polluted, how much do you actually have to use without added cost and effort?).  Taking the arguments further, see the numbers about trying to supply water to South Africa’s latest expense account, the Medupi power station. Read more »

Global water risk map released

20 July 2013


WRI's Aqueduct water risk mapping project

WRI’s Aqueduct water risk mapping project (

The World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Aqueduct Project has released an interactive map of various categories of water risk around the world.  Per the launch information,

The project, created with an alliance of companies including GE, Goldman Sachs, Shell, and Procter & Gamble, is the highest high-resolution map of global water stress available today. It’s also the first water-risk mapping tool to include a layer for groundwater data. WRI’s free map uses 2010 data (the most current data available) to measure a number of categories of water risk around the world: physical risk; variability in available water from year to year, which looks at flood occurrences (how often and how intense); severity of droughts (how long and how severe), groundwater stress, pollution pressure, demand for water treatment, media coverage about water issues (meaning how much attention is given to water in a given area), and more. Read more »

Florida concerned about un-controlled pollution and algal blooms

30 June 2013

While Barack Obama is holidaying in South Africa, here are some end-of-month notices about algal blooms in North America:

Users of Taylorsville Lake (Canada) have been warned about increasing levels of toxicity. In Oklahoma, the US Army Corps of Engineers have increased the list of potentially- toxic lakes to include Keystone Lake, Lake Tenkiller, Lake Eufaula and Skiatook Lake.  A separate report has Green County Lake added to the Oklahoma list.  Fernan Lake in Idaho is today’s addition to the list.  The Dorothy State has the following lakes on warning

  • Logan City Lake – Logan, Phillips County
  • Marion Reservoir – Marion County
  • Memorial Park Lake (Veterans Lake) – Great Bend, Barton Count

and Milford Reservoir on an advisory notice.

In Florida, algal blooms are being associated with a number of problems, including (see report) the death of manatees. Read more »