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Epidemiology of recreational exposure to cyanobacteria
- Recreational and occupational field exposure to freshwater cyanobacteria

Six epidemiological studies of recreational exposure to cyanobacteria were identified with the search strategy discussed previously: three analytical cross-sectional studies from the U.K. using similar survey instruments [86-88], a small case-control study from Australia [89], and two larger prospective cohort studies, also from Australia [90,91]. Table 2 lists the pertinent findings of these studies, which are discussed in detail below.

The three cross-sectional studies were conducted by Philipp and co-workers [86-88]. Questionnaires were distributed to recreational users of six inland waterbodies, five of which experienced cyanobacteria blooms during 1990. The questionnaires elicited information on exposure to study waters and the presence of specific symptoms in a defined period prior to receiving the form. This period ranged from 14 days [87] to four weeks [88]. One questionnaire asked about exposure to the study water on a weekend when a bloom occurred some 21/2 weeks previously [86]. Recreational interest groups were used to target likely users of the waterbodies; questionnaires were mailed to members of sailing and angling clubs. Site authorities distributed questionnaires at one study lake [88]. The results of these three studies were similar: mostly minor morbidity was reported, with similar disease patterns across sites.

The theoretical advantages of this study type are that it is reasonably cost-effective, and in this context – recreational exposure to cyanobacteria – it can be conducted opportunistically to take advantage of any sudden-onset cyanobacteria blooms. Disadvantages relate to the difficulty in establishing that exposure occurred before the outcome [92,93]. The studies conducted by Philipp and his team [86-88] were examples of analytical cross-sectional studies, in that unexposed individuals served as controls for statistical comparison of illness reporting.

A case-control study of illness rates was conducted after an extensive Anabaena circinalis-dominant bloom along South Australia's Murray River in the summer of 1991–1992 [89]. Patients presenting with gastro-intestinal (G-I) or dermatological complaints comprised the case group; the patient presenting after each case was identified served as the control group. Exposure was determined by identifying each subject's principal source of water for drinking, domestic use (bathing, dishwashing) and recreation during the week prior to consultation. Recreational exposure was categorised as no contact, direct exposure to river water, or other exposure, e.g. farm dams or treated water in swimming pools. The study found a significantly increased risk of G-I symptoms for those drinking chlorinated river water, and an increased risk of G-I and cutaneous symptoms in those using untreated river water for domestic purposes. There was a statistically non-significant increase in the relative odds of developing G-I or skin symptoms amongst those with recreational exposure to river water, but that risk was lower than for those exposed to other sources of recreational water (tank, farm dam or another location). The number of subjects was small for the recreational exposure component of the study, with only some 50 subjects (16% of the study group) reporting any recreational exposure during the study period [89].

The advantages of a case-control design for investigating recreational exposure to cyanobacteria are that studies can be conducted opportunistically in response to the development of cyanobacteria blooms, and they are very useful for investigating infrequent outcomes. The study of El Saadi et al [89] has another advantage over other epidemiological studies into recreational exposure to cyanobacteria in that medical practitioners ascertained outcome data, as opposed to self-reporting of symptoms. General disadvantages of the case-control design principally relate to the problem of recall bias, where individuals with the disease of interest tend to overestimate relevant past exposures [92,93]. Because the outcome has already occurred when exposure is measured, people with disease may systematically overestimate (or underestimate) their exposure compared to disease-free controls, leading to falsely elevated (or reduced) measures of risk associated with exposure. Another major issue with case-control studies is the difficulty of identifying an appropriate control group – i.e. people who would have been identified as cases if they had the disease of interest.

Recall bias may not be so much of a problem for investigating acute illnesses following recreational exposure to cyanobacteria, where a fairly short time lag between exposure and symptom onset can be anticipated, especially if recreational exposure is determined by a yes/no response. The main problem with a case-control study in this context will be in actually identifying cases. A case-control design would not be suitable for investigating outcomes from exposure to a cyanobacteria bloom in a lake adjacent to a city, as most recreational users who do develop symptoms would presumably seek medical attention after they return home, i.e. from one of a large number of medical practitioners. El Saadi et al [89] alluded to the difficulty of gaining the cooperation of medical practitioners, as they approached practices in 11 towns along the Murray River, yet those in three towns presumably refused to participate in their study. The diffuse spread of cases from point sources of exposure (a cyanobacteria-affected waterbody) across a large town or city would make a case-control study practically unworkable. A case-control study would also be unsuitable for recruiting subjects who did not seek medical attention for symptoms occurring after exposure. However, a well-designed case-control study would be valuable if geographical location is a primary consideration. This would require enlisting the cooperation of medical practitioners in small townships near to cyanobacteria-affected recreational waters that are sufficiently remote from larger urban centres to allow recruitment of local residents and tourists who will camp nearby.

The studies by Pilotto et al [90] and Stewart et al [91] were prospective cohort studies. Pilotto et al [90] recruited individuals at five recreational waterbodies in three Australian states. Cyanobacteria blooms were anticipated at these sites, based on occurrences in previous years. Individuals were approached and invited to participate in the study. Participants completed a face-to-face interview to determine health status and recreational water activities; two telephone follow-up interviews were conducted at two and seven days following the day of recruitment into the study. Individuals who did not have water contact on the recruitment day served as the control group. No significant differences in symptom occurrence were reported at the 2nd day follow-up, but the authors concluded there was a significant increase in symptoms at 7 days, after excluding subjects with symptoms or previous recent recreational water exposure. The cohort size from which these significant results were drawn was rather small, with 93 exposed subjects, and 43 unexposed controls. Pilotto et al [90] interpreted the increased symptom reporting at 7 days but not 2 days following exposure as possibly due to delayed allergic responses, although so-called "late phase" allergic and asthmatic responses tend to occur some 4–24 hours after allergen exposure [69,94,95].

Stewart et al [91] also conducted a cohort study of recreational exposure to cyanobacteria. 1,331 subjects were recruited from 19 recreational waterbodies in eastern Australia and central and northeast Florida; subjects completed a self-administered questionnaire to determine recreational activity, recent illness and history of any relevant chronic diseases such as asthma, hay fever and eczema. A single follow-up telephone interview was conducted after three days post-exposure. Reference subjects were recruited at recreational waters unaffected by cyanobacteria; exposure categories (low, intermediate, high) were allocated to study subjects on the basis of cyanobacteria levels measured in study water samples collected on the day they were recruited into the study. Statistically significant increased reporting of respiratory symptoms and a pooled "any symptom" category occurred amongst subjects exposed to high levels of cyanobacteria, although symptoms were predominantly rated as mild by study subjects. A similar but non-significant relationship was also seen for reporting of skin, ear and fever symptom groups.

The studies of Pilotto et al [90] and Stewart et al [91] are both examples of a prospective cohort design, where study subjects have their exposure status determined, and are then followed forward in time to observe the development of disease. For these investigations into recreational exposure to cyanobacteria, exposure status was determined by collecting water samples on the day subjects were recruited into the study; cyanobacteria were identified and enumerated and the resultant cell counts or biomass estimates formed the basis of exposure at any given site on a particular day. One of the problems with this approach is that cyanobacteria blooms are dynamic and can change rapidly. Unless the presence of significant cyanobacterial biomass can be predicted with some degree of certainty, a prospective cohort design can result in wasted effort if the water samples reveal lower than anticipated levels of cyanobacteria. This problem undoubtedly occurred in some instances during the study conducted by Stewart et al [91]. One possible approach to dealing with this would be to conduct a historical cohort study, where a cohort of subjects is identified after some have experienced the outcome of interest and relevant exposure information is obtained from historical records (i.e. as in a prospective cohort study the exposure information was recorded before any outcomes occurred).

Whether a cohort study is conducted prospectively or retrospectively, the basic study design is identical – exposed and unexposed groups are compared with respect to disease outcome [93]. General advantages of a cohort design are the ability to determine disease onset (the exposure precedes the disease), and the study of exposures in natural settings [92]. General disadvantages relate to confounding, which refers to differences in the distribution of risk factors other than the exposure of interest between exposed and unexposed groups. Cohort studies can be expensive and resource intensive [92].

Further discussion of some common epidemiological study designs that may be useful for investigating the topic of recreational exposure to aquatic cyanobacteria, with particular emphasis on the relative advantages and disadvantages of experimental epidemiology (randomised trials) is presented by Stewart [75].

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