Man poisoned from Chilmark Pond exposure

Cyanobacteria believed behind spasms, swelling, and incoherence. 

“Traces of blue-green algae caused by nitrification have been found in Chilmark Pond, so signage has been posted warning people not to swim.” -Kyra Steck

Chilmark selectmen learned Thursday night of a Chilmark Pond cyanobacteria incident. A local man who went crabbing at night in the pond later suffered some “pretty disturbing symptoms,” health agent Marina Lent told the board. Lent said the symptoms “were very consistent” with neurotoxins from blue-green algae blooms. The town’s health department has been monitoring algae in the pond, and has posted warning signs along public shoreline used to haul out kayaks, she said. 

She also said the health department has been exploring the issue with Martha’s Vineyard Commission water resource planner Sheri Caseau. The health department also participated in a Zoom meeting with several pond associations to discuss the subject, and look for ways to adopt a pond testing program, she said. 

“It is something that is an emerging issue, and it’s probably connected to warmer weather and increased nutrients in the ponds,” she said. “We did not used to have to deal with it.”

Lent said the immediate priority is to educate the public that there is a high danger of ingestion from certain activities. “In other words, swimming or pets or small children who don’t have any discipline about swallowing the water they’re splashing around in,” she said. Depending on the “size and intensity” of the bloom, exposure can be “highly dangerous,” Lent said. 

Town administrator Tim Carroll said a dog died last year from ingesting water from the pond. This year he said it was “actually kind of frightening” to hear what happened to the crabber.

He also said a surfer discovered a bloom at the town landing in Squibnocket, and Lent has posted in that area too. 


Symptoms after crabbing

In mid August, nurse practitioner Carol Forgione’s son came home from what she later learned was a night of crab hunting in Chilmark Pond, and she found him “not in good shape.” For privacy reasons, Forgione has withheld her son’s name, but nevertheless wanted to tell his story as a matter of public health awareness. Forgione said her son said he started to feel weird, and appeared “disoriented.” His feet and hands swelled, and he said, “I feel strange.”

Her son, who she said is 6 feet, 7 inches, and some 230 pounds, slumped over more than once as the hours passed. She asked if he’d been drinking, and he denied that he had been. She said she couldn’t figure out what ailed him. He began to have “terrible” muscle spasms, headaches, and tingling in his hands and feet. 

Eventually his feet doubled in size, she said. Benadryl was used to help tamp down inflammation, but she could not figure out what was causing it. Then she said she recalled a letter she’d read in The Times by Judith Scheuer. That letter talked about the neurotoxic effects of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, that produce a neurotoxin. 

“Had I not read that letter, I would not have put two and two together,” she said.

Her son was out of work for a week, and “couldn’t hardly walk” because of what she described as a “toxic reaction” to cyanobacteria in the pond. He was crabbing for three hours, and had cuts on his hands and feet, which may have exacerbated the reaction, she said. 

She described him as roughly 80 percent better now, but he still has tingles in his feet and occasional spasms.

In certain circumstances, she said, exposure to cyanobacteria has a 12 percent mortality rate. 

Ingestion is especially bad, she said. “The outcome can mimic Lou Gehrig’s disease.

She said the crabs from that night were disposed of. “Thank God he didn’t eat anything, because it would have been so much worse,” she said.

Up until she read the letter, she said, she was not aware of the cyanobacterial neurotoxins. “I’m in medicine, and I figured if I didn’t know about it, a lot of people didn’t know about it,” she said.

She later learned signs had been posted in public areas at the pond, however her son entered the pond off private land, she said.

Her message to the public was to respect such warning signs, and for folks to become more educated about cyanobacteria so they too don’t become exposed.