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Algae bloom may be behind mysterious California deaths

August 26, 2021

ASU algae expert explains one of the deadliest toxins on the planet

On a remote trail in California’s Sierra National Forest called the Devil’s Gulch, a family of three and their dog were recently found dead. Authorities were at a loss to explain what happened.

"I've worked in different capacities, but I've never seen a death like this," the county sheriff told the press.

It turns out the family might have been exposed to a poison deadlier than nerve gas: toxic algae, one of the deadliest toxin on the planet.

Unofficially, it is called Very Fast Death Factor. The CIA reportedly uses it in suicide pills for agents likely to be captured by the enemy. It has caused entire towns along the Italian coast to be evacuated. And it may have been the cause of a mass die-off of an African elephant herd.

Last month, the Sierra National Forest — part of the U.S. Forest Service — announced that "a high concentration of algae bloom" had been found in the Merced River.

"The Sierra National Forest (SNF) would like to inform those visitors who like to enjoy this area of the Merced River and SNF, not to swim, wade or allow their pets to enjoy the water," the agency announced.

ASU News talked to Taylor Weiss, an Arizona State University assistant professor in environmental and resource management in the Polytechnic School and a member of the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation — where research is being done to harness algae technology to produce renewable energy, food, feed and other valuable products, while performing environmental services to support a more sustainable future for society — about this deadly substance. 

Question: My first thought was, I didn't know that algae could kill.

Answer: It is among the most deadly toxins on the entire planet. If you made a list of like the top 10, VX gas-synthetic (a nerve agent) would only be one of the top 10. All the rest are held by algae. ...

The tidbit of history that people gloss over is that the CIA actually stopped issuing cyanide capsules a long time ago. But we know for a fact that U-2 pilots who flew over Russia were issued fake coins with needles in them laced with saxitoxin to kill themselves in the event of torture. So we know what they do. We know the most highly effective chemical weapons designed mimic their activities. They accomplish the same goal. They are paralytic agents that paralyze your nerves that control your skeletal muscles. They lead to your diaphragm becoming unable to move, which means you suffocate, as almost certainly what seems to have happened to this particular family on this occasion.

When (authorities) were concerned about toxic gases for mines and immediately they'd say they were looking for carbon monoxide poisoning, it's just that they died quickly and suffocated. Many of the other toxins that most of the time we pay attention to — which are liver toxin, hepatotoxins, like a poisonous mushroom — those take days or weeks usually to kill. But literally saxitoxin’s unofficial name is Very Fast Death Factor. It kills very quickly. So you should have it in the same mindset as a chemical weapon.

Q: So this family was out with their dog. Would they be next to a creek or a puddle?

A: It’s the same reason why pets die from it, especially dogs. The dogs go in the water, they swim in it and they come back with the algae sticking to their fur in particular, and then they lick it off or people wipe their hands on the dog or something like that. We had pet deaths in Arizona earlier this year from the same thing. ... Some of these compounds, they volatilize. They can literally just be off-gas in the air. So you don't need to go into the water to be exposed to it.

There were major blooms of some of these toxins off of Italy about five years ago. Entire villages were evacuated because the air was poisoning them enough that everybody was affected. These are no joke. And you don't know that they're there. They’re ephemeral, so they come and go. However, blooms are natural. The toxins are natural. But having lots of algae producing lots of the toxin, and there's certainly grades of toxins, it's difficult to keep track of. It's not very common. It’s one of these incredibly high-risk but low-probability events that just is very difficult to sort of get and stay on top of.

Q: If you were out on a hike, what would be some warning signs that it was nearby?

A: I would look to regulations on the books. So the World Health Organization issued regulations about 10 years ago on the standard by which advisories any country anywhere should basically make actions for, recreational and drinking and other uses like that. Basically, if there's a lot of algae in the water, there's a lot of chlorophyll, i.e. the algae are very active, so they'll be able to make lots. And then number three is, are they cyanobacteria? Other types of algae can be toxic, but the cyanobacteria are the most common. (Cyanobacteria is blue-green and smells like freshly cut grass.) So those three standards, basically, you keep track of them.

And so in an event where you have lots of cyanobacteria, and they're doing a lot of photosynthesis and they're there in high numbers very rapidly, you should be very concerned. We do not have federal guidelines in the United States. The problem is somewhat unequally spread between states. It means state regulators are really responsible for monitoring and enforcing things ... and so it also varies by state. Obviously in California, they do monitor areas where people come into contact with water on a more routine basis. But if it's in a more rural area, this is where we hear these stories all the time. It's basically, the water's not monitored and people, their pets or animals come into contact with it. Nobody's paying attention, and on rare occasion, these very bad things happen.

Q: So a good rule of thumb would be if you see a pool or a pond or a puddle with a lot of algae, stay away from it.

A: If a regulator has put up warning signs saying to avoid the area, follow them. ... I would take the warnings more strongly than even (what) the regulators themselves often post. There is always pushback on a recreational side. Cities don't want to declare suddenly you can't go swimming and spend summer dollars and vacation. They don't like that. And because these events can be very ephemeral, right? Maybe it's one day it's harmful, but you're killing the whole rest of the summer. There's always that conflict. So regulators will be very cautious, but they're kind of putting responsibility on you.

If there isn't an issued warning and you're out in nature and things like that, the problem is with these very toxic algae, you may not see any problems. It may appear to be free and clear water. There could be a bloom somewhere else, but just carrying the toxins downstream. ... There is no great rule of thumb, except if you don't know the water, don't trust the water. And in particular, what I would say is, in the summertime it is more likely to be cyanobacteria, so to be more cautious. This is why swimming is the bigger problem. People don't tend to swim in the water in the winter, but that's also the safer time.

Top image by Gina Janosch from Pixabay

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

480-727-4502

 
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August 26, 2021

A guide to the historic, the weird and wonderful on all four campuses

There are scores of campus guides, directories and maps for Arizona State University. They’ll get you to your classes, show you where the nearest coffee is, and point out where to study, exercise and eat.

This is not one of those guides.

We're sure you can find the student union and the fitness center on your own. So this is a guide to the historic, the weird and the wonderful on all four ASU campuses. "What is that thing?" you might wonder. We’re here to answer that. 

Tempe

Stand where a president stood

At 2 acres short of a solid square mile and 136 years old, the Tempe campus has a lot of university history and goodies, like moon rocks, dinosaur skulls, meteorites, rare books and paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Diego Rivera.

Old Main, the three-story red brick Victorian pile with the balcony and elegant staircase on University Drive, is the heart and soul of the campus.

Lots of universities have beautiful old buildings. But not one where one of the four presidents carved on Mount Rushmore stood and spoke.

On March 20, 1911, former President Theodore Roosevelt was in town for the dedication of the Roosevelt Dam, located 60 miles northeast of the Salt River Valley. His trip to Tempe was only intended to be two or three minutes long. He was expected to speak standing from his car.

ASU Tempe Old Main

Old Main on the Tempe campus is one of ASU's signature buildings.

But when he arrived at the campus, he was greeted by hundreds of people. A huge flag hung from the second-floor balcony of Old Main. Roosevelt bounded up the steps to the first landing and spoke for 13 minutes.

“It is a rare pleasure to be here, and I wish to congratulate the territory of Arizona upon the far-sighted wisdom and generosity which was shown in building the institution,” Roosevelt said. “It is a pleasure to see such buildings, and it is an omen of good augury for the future of the state to realize that a premium is being put upon the best type of educational work.”

Arizona historians agree that the dam’s dedication is the single most significant event in the history of Phoenix. Walk up to the first landing, stand on the west side, and you’re exactly where the Bull Moose himself stood. There’s no plaque.

The Philomathian bench

Closer to University Drive, on the west side of the Old Main lawn sits the Philomathian bench. There’s no plaque there either.

The Philomathians (derived from the Greek philomath, which means "a lover of learning”) were one of three literary societies organized in 1900. All students were required to participate in one of the societies: the Alphas — for freshman students only — the Olympians or the Philomathians. During this period, the three societies competed for an annual trophy. By 1912, all three were disbanded and were eventually replaced with voluntary clubs.

The Philomathian society returned in 1921 as an all-women’s club that returned to its roots as “Lovers of Learning.” They continued to promote writing, music, oration, essay and debate for the betterment of their club members and enjoyed going on weekend camping trips and desert picnics together. Just before the convocation of 1929, the Philomathian seat was dedicated by alumni. It has been on the Old Main lawn ever since.

ASU Philomathian Bench

The Philomathian society alumnae donated the bench in 1929 to honor lovers of learning. The bench is located next to the recently renovated Durham Hall, near Old Main. It is one of the not-in-the-directory gems of ASU'sTempe campus, but worth noting. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

As time passed, the society became a sorority, adopted Greek letters and broadened activities to include dramatics, literature and social functions such as sports and music. In 1949, the Philomathian sorority was last listed in the Arizona State College annual, disbanding shortly thereafter. Since the 1950s, the Alpha Delta Pi sorority, which has loose ties to the Philomathians, has maintained the seat.

The reptile collection

South and east of Old Main is the Life Sciences A Wing. Walk into the north hallway and you’ll find one of the most Arizona things at Arizona State – the Life Sciences Living Reptile Exhibit with about 18 to 20 reptiles on display (the displays change from time to time). Most are rattlesnakes, representing all of the species and subspecies found in Arizona.

The star of the show is Joey, an albino Western diamondback rattlesnake, son of Hector, who lived for 24 years.

Joey albino rattlesnake ASU

Joey, the albino Western diamondback rattlesnake, is a not-in-the-directory gem of ASU's Tempe campus and worth noting. He lives with his sister and mother in the Life Sciences A Wing, along with several other reptiles. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

The snakes tend to be mostly dormant, unless you happen through when the enclosures are being cleaned, and then they’re fired up.

No one seems to know exactly how long the collection has been in place, though most believe its origins extend from the 1960s when the School of Life Sciences was the Department of Zoology. At that time Herbert Stahnke — a scorpion expert who developed a scorpion antivenin — headed the department, and the treatment of bites from scorpions, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters generated interest in antivenin.

The Secret Garden

Go to the southwest corner of Dixie Gammage Hall (on Forest Mall, across from Coor Hall) and walk down a ramp and through a short tunnel. There you will find the Secret Garden, a lush, shady courtyard with seating, a lovely lawn and a fireplace. It’s not on official campus maps, but it has been beloved for decades for peace and quiet.

ASU Tempe Secret Garden

The Secret Garden, hidden between Dixie Gammage Hall and West Hall, is a favorite for Sun Devils seeking some solitude. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

The hottest – and coolest – spots on campus

The three hottest spots on campus, according to an ASU study:

1. At the center of the "X" sidewalks on Hayden Lawn.

Hottest spot on ASU Tempe campus

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

2. The walkway between Coor and Payne halls.

3. The intersection of Cady and Tyler malls.

The three coolest spots on campus:

1. The breezeway at Coor Hall.

Coolest spot on ASU Tempe campus

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

2. Under the trees on the Old Main lawn.

3. Under the giant ficus tree just west of the Memorial Union.

What the foxes say

“We’re just fine” is probably what they say. The Tempe campus is home to kit foxes and gray foxes. People usually mistake them for cats. Three of them broke into the Memorial Union in September 2020. They’re often spotted by the residence halls, but they’ve been seen everywhere else: Noble Library, the stadium parking lot, Hayden Lawn. They’re not shy. One was spotted running across the Old Main lawn on a weekday afternoon, with hundreds of people around.

“I saw one really late at night by the bookstore, and I thought I was hallucinating,” said Reddit user volkszaggen.

Fox sleeping on ASU Tempe campus

Gray fox snoozing in an unoccupied building on the Tempe campus. Photo by reddit user fwarrr

Kit fox on ASU campus

Kit fox on campus. Photo by reddit user CanisSparverius

Downtown Phoenix campus

The post office murals

The old post office at 522 N. Central Ave. is a gathering place for students and has office space for counseling, career services and other units. Wander around the lobby and you’ll notice four spectacular murals.

The federal government had a program in the 1930s and 1940s to place art in public buildings. It was intended to be a morale booster after the Great Depression. Subjects were supposed to be uplifting, painted in an "American scene" style and depict ordinary citizens in a realistic manner — nothing in abstract or modern art styles. The works were supposed to be appropriate to their locales.

Two of the murals were painted by Oscar Edmund Berninghaus, a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists. The Taos Society was founded in 1915 by a group of visual artists enthralled with the beauty and culture of northern New Mexico.

Phoenix post office mural by Oscar Edmund Berninghaus

Phoenix post office mural by Oscar Edmund Berninghaus, Taos Society of Artists, 1939. "Spanish Explorers and American Indians." Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

Berninghaus and his colleagues believed a distinctly American art would emanate from Taos. "We have had French, Dutch, Italian and German art,” he said. “Now we have American art. I feel that from Taos will come that art."

The other two murals were painted by Laverne Nelson Black, who was fascinated with Native American culture. He was a shy man who never achieved any notable recognition in his life. Sadly, he was reportedly poisoned by the paints he used in these murals and died shortly after completing them.

Most paintings from the Taos school hang in museums now. They are highly sought-after, extremely rare and command significant prices when they do appear on the market.

Phoenix post office mural by Laverne Nelson Black

Phoenix post office mural by Laverne Nelson Black, 1937. "Progress of the Pioneer, Crossing the Desert." Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

Polytechnic campus

Ammunition dump

The Polytechnic campus was originally a World War II aviation training facility. P-38 Lightning and B-17 Flying Fortress pilots trained there. There was also gunnery training, which required ammunition.

That was stored in bunkers south of campus, built by Del Webb in 1942. They look like mounds of dirt with a space in between. One mound was the actual bunker. The other side was a blast wall, designed to contain the explosion if it blew up.

They’re in good shape, but empty.

Poly ammo dump

Ammo Bunker (S-1008), located southwest of Vosler Drive (formerly Alaska Drive), at the Polytechnic campus (formerly Williams Air Force Base), in Mesa. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Photo courtesy of Tony the Marine via Wikimedia Commons/Marine 69-71 at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 

West campus

The Bool bell

When Navy SEAL candidates drop out of Hell Week, they ring a bell. When West campus students succeed, they ring the Bool bell.

The Bool bell was donated to the West campus in 1983 and was named for the couple who donated it, Herb and Betty Bool. Since then, the bell has been a symbol of achievement for West students.

Once a student has finished their last final at ASU, completing the final course of their senior year, they ring the Bool bell. During finals week students can walk the campus and listen to the bell being rung, knowing that with each ring a different student has finished their academic journey at ASU.

The tradition is so popular that the bell can even be heard occasionally over the summer.

Bool Bell, ASU West campus

Ringing the Bool Bell in triumph. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

Top photo: A student studies in the peace and quiet of the Secret Garden on the Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

480-727-4502