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- Recreational and occupational field exposure to freshwater cyanobacteria

The true incidence of acute cyanobacteria-associated illness from recreational exposure is unknown, as many outcomes are likely to be mild and self-limiting, so medical attention is not sought. With a long-standing knowledge gap amongst primary healthcare providers, non-specific signs and symptoms caused by cyanobacterial products are likely to be under-diagnosed [8]. Codd [122] stated:

"Evidence linking human illnesses with cyanobacterial cells and toxins is open to criticism because of shortfalls in early detailed case definitions, because diagnoses were made by exclusion, and because identification and quantification of cyanobacterial toxins in health incidents have, until recently, been lacking."

The collation of anecdotal and case reports of illness associated with recreational exposure to cyanobacteria in Additional File 1 will hopefully highlight some of the knowledge gaps. Particular attention should be given to determining the onset and duration of individual symptoms in future case reporting, as well as detailing the presence or absence of any predisposing medical conditions.

A recent initiative of UNESCO's International Hydrology Programme has been to establish CyanoNet, which is a "Global network for the hazard management of cyanobacterial blooms and toxins in water resources". The CyanoNet website will carry information on various associated topics, including "Reported incidents of adverse health effects including case studies" and "Surveys and epidemiological studies investigating associations between cyanobacterial populations, cyanotoxins and health" [123].

The most important advances in understanding the health impacts of cyanobacteria have come from the discipline of toxicology. The major toxins have been extensively studied and characterised, and while there is still much to be discovered in the field of cyanobacterial toxicology, significant advances in the future will be made at the interface of toxicology and epidemiology. Molecular epidemiology techniques using yet-to-be discovered biomarkers of exposure, susceptibility and outcome will refine knowledge of the risks associated with various acute and chronic exposures to cyanotoxins. The collaborative skills that epidemiologists and toxicologists can bring to this endeavour were viewed with a mildly jaundiced eye by Paddle [124], whose chapter on epidemiology for toxicologists is an excellent general primer:

"The total evidence about the risk to humans...will consist of the toxicologist's precise, experimental data about the wrong species at the wrong exposure, and the epidemiologist's imprecise, observational data about the right species at the right exposure."

In conclusion, anecdotal and case reports of variable reliability have suggested a range of symptoms are associated with exposure to cyanobacteria in recreational or occupational settings. Some reports of cutaneous reactions are strongly suggestive of allergic reactions, and symptoms such as rhinitis, conjunctivitis, asthma and urticaria also hint at immediate hypersensitivity responses. Flu-like illnesses involving a constellation of symptoms including fever, malaise, myalgia, arthralgia, severe headache, cough and sore throat are, in our opinion, explained by a cascade action of pro-inflammatory cytokines. If correct, this implies that some cyanobacterial products possess ligands that induce innate immune responses, and such responses may need to be considered in terms of their potential to direct pathological changes in the liver and other organ systems.

The epidemiology of recreational exposure to cyanobacteria is incomplete at present. All common epidemiological approaches have their own inherent advantages and disadvantages; identification of biomarkers for exposure, susceptibility and outcome in the future should lead to a significantly improved perception of the risks of bathing in cyanobacteria-affected waters.


BMAA β-N-methylamino-L-alanine

G-I gastro-intestinal

GP General Practitioner (aka Family Physician)

IFN interferon

IgE immunoglobulin-E

IL interleukin

i.p. intra-peritoneal

LD50 lethal dose for 50% of test animals

LPS lipopolysaccharide(s)

TNF-α tumour necrosis factor-alpha

UNESCO United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Competing interests

The author(s) declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors' contributions

IS conducted the review; PMW, PJS and GRS supervised the work and contributed to redrafting the paper. All authors read and endorsed the final manuscript.


This work was supported by grants from the South East Queensland Water Corporation and the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Quality and Treatment. Thanks to Ulrike Bauer for translating the German paper, Tatiana Komarova for the Russian translation and Martine Muusse for the Dutch translation. The National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology is co-funded by Queensland Health, The University of Queensland, Griffith University and Queensland University of Technology.

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