U.S. Water News Online
RALEIGH, N.C. -- A North Carolina researcher sometimes at
odds with colleagues skeptical of her claim of a toxic marine microbe
that killed fish along the East Coast has received some vindication.
The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration agency said
two species of the microbes, called Pfiesteria, can transform into
toxic organisms that cause fish kills.
The microbe, which starts out harmless, shut down some North
Carolina and Maryland waters in the mid-1990s. JoAnn Burkholder, a
scientist at North Carolina State University, helped discover the
organism in state waters in 1989.
But her work was questioned by others who doubted that Pfiesteria
spewed poison to attack estuarine fish.
After nine years of study, the oceanic and atmospheric
administration and chemist Peter Moeller identified the venom
&emdash; a discovery Burkholder praised.
"The past nine or 10 years have been difficult. I really would not
have wanted to live them. But this is a great day," Burkholder said.
Environmentalists have praised Burkholder's work despite the
doubts raised by other scientists and public health officials.
"As scientists we are supposed to be skeptics. That is our job,"
said Wolfgang Vogelbein, a researcher at the Virginia Institute of
He and others have published studies saying that Pfiesteria kills
fish by attacking them directly and that sores on fish in
pfiesteria-tainted waters come from mold. Scientists need to study
the wild to confirm Moeller's findings, Vogelbein said.
Congress held hearings after fishermen and boaters reported
experiencing memory problems during a 1997 pfiesteria outbreak in
Maryland. Burkholder, who was featured in a popular book as a
crusader working to influence health experts, angered her critics.
She even angered other scientists by sometimes refusing to share
Moeller, based in Charleston, S.C., said it wasn't easy to find
that Pfiesteria produces a poison that kills fish.
Pfiesteria makes poisons under specific conditions, when it is
near certain metals and the metals are in certain charged states,
"I doubt they carry over into seafood," Moeller said of the
toxins, which can be there one moment and then be gone.
While Moeller said his research will bolster Burkholder's claims,
he acknowledged that the microbe still has to be studied in nature to
be confirmed. He agreed with Burkholder's claim that pollution makes
"What this highlights is that there are environmental cues. I
think this plays together with those observations," he said.
Duke University Ed Levin said identifying the Pfiesteria chemical
will help find out if the toxin can cause health concerns for animals
and humans. Levin found that the microbe caused brain damage and
Through the years, Burkholder has warned that the poison also can
hurt people, saying that she and another scientist developed memory
and learning problems after being exposed the marine organism.
North Carolina hasn't had a Pfiesteria outbreak since 1999.
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