News | January 18, 2012

Could Tap Water Cause Lou Gehrig's Disease?

By Kevin Westerling, Web Editor

In what could be a life-saving discovery, a toxic molecule sometimes found in drinking water has been linked to the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.

As reported by Pacific Standard, botanist Paul Cox and biologist Sandra Banack have spearheaded a consortium of scientists in researching the effects of the toxic molecule beta-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) present in cyanobacteria, which blooms in water and is often referred to as blue-green algae (though, scientifically speaking, it bears no relation to algae). Their studies indicate that as the consumption of BMAA increases in humans, so does the incidence of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS has been the focus of the researchers because of its severe nature — victims are paralyzed and typically die within five years — and the ability to accurately diagnose the disease in living patients. However, the findings also link BMAA concentrations to increased incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Like ALS, they have no known causes and no cure.

The work of Banack, Cox, and their team first met with resistance from the scientific community, in part because funding and research has focused on genetics as the cause of these neurodegenerative diseases, and also due to the fact that BMAA is not one of the 20 “building block” amino acids that make up proteins in all living organisms. Additional research, however, showed how BMAA could accumulate in nerve cells, giving scientific credibility to the hypothesis.

One study, by neurologist Elijah Stommel of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, found that the rate of ALS doubles around lakes reported to have cyanobacterial blooms throughout New England, and he is building a database of ALS cases in the northeastern United States. There and elsewhere, sources of exposure to BMAA include direct drinking water, food (especially shellfish), or swimming in contaminated water.

According to the Pacific Standard article, no water treatment plants in the United States are known to test for BMAA. Standard water treatment methods such as sand filtration, powdered activated carbon, and chlorination have proven effective in removing the toxin, but flocculation was deemed less effective. Cox has lobbied for more BMAA monitoring, and the Institute for EthnoMedicine — which he cofounded with Banack in 2004 — has developed a dipstick-type water test to do so, as well as filter technology to remove the compound.

“People need to be very careful about the water they’re drinking,” the article quoted Cox. “At this point we suspect there may be a tie between cyanobacterial toxins and your risk of progressive neurodegenerative disease — but it’s still a hypothesis.”

If Cox and his colleagues are right, it would provide tremendous encouragement to the scores of people affected by these devastating illnesses. In fact, Phase II clinical studies are underway for a drug that could potentially remove BMAA from the body and slow the progression of ALS, which is diagnosed in around 5,600 Americans each year.

Needless to say, he has a lot of people rooting for him.

What are your thoughts on the connection asserted between cyanobacteria and neurodegenerative disease, and what impact will it have on the water community? Please share your thoughts below...