What You Should Know About Pfiesteria and NCíS Waters

Related Websites:
NCSU Aquatic Botany Laboratory Pfiesteria piscicida Page
DHHS Pfiesteria Information

What is Pfiesteria?

Like dozens of other organisms that live in our estuaries, Pfiesteria and other Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates are cause for concern, but they are not cause for alarm or panic.

Pfiesteria was discovered in 1991 by NC State University researchers Drs. Ed Noga and JoAnn Burkholder. Dr. Burkholder and other researchers have subsequently found three other Pfiesteria-like organisms, which behave similarly but are yet to be named.

Pfiesteria and its cousins are dinoflagellates--complicated microscopic organisms that sometimes behave like plants and sometimes like animals. Pfiesteria has at least two dozen life stages. Pfiesteria and other dinoflagellates can produce toxins that cause lesions in fish and have caused fish kills in the lower Neuse, Tar-Pamlico, and New River estuaries of North Carolina.

Dr. Burkholder and other scientists have identified Pfiesteria and other dinoflagellates as the cause of fish kills from the mid-Atlantic to the Gulf Coast.

When and Where in NC is Pfiesteria a Problem?

Some national news accounts have implied that Pfiesteria is a widespread problem across the entire state. That's not true. Pfiesteria is potentially a problem only at certain times of the year (usually April-October) and only in some locations (usually found in parts of the Neuse, Pamlico, and New River estuaries). It is not a problem in lakes, inland waters, or ocean waters in North Carolina.

Does Pfiesteria Make People Sick?

In 1993, researchers became ill while working in a closed, insufficiently ventilated environment. Those researchers reported a number of problems, including inability to concentrate. Similarly, a Duke University researcher found that rats exposed to Pfiesteria had impaired learning.

Until recently, it was unclear whether folks outside of the laboratory--exposed to Pfiesteria in the water--could be similarly affected. But, there is now objective medical evidence to suggest that Pfiesteria, or one of its cousins, has sickened some people working on the Pocomoke River in Maryland. Researchers with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland found that five people who had worked on the Pocomoke before or during a Pfiesteria-related fish kill showed evidence of abnormal brain function. In addition, the health complaints include reports of burning skin and respiratory irritation, followed by problems with concentration.

What Should I do If I think I've Been Exposed to Pfiesteria?

Call the state's toll-free hotline at 1-888-823-6915

There Are Still a Lot of Unanswered Questions Regarding Pfiesteria, What is the State Doing to Answer Those Questions?

We've put together a medical team that is working to find and study folks who
potentially have been exposed to Pfiesteria. Surveillance will be stepped up using the toll-free hotline which will gather case reports.

The state has created a rapid response action team to monitor water quality in the affected areas and to notify appropriate health agencies of affected areas. The state will issue health advisories as needed.

The state continues to fund other long-term studies and research on the organism.

If I Have More Questions, Who Should I Call?

If you think you've been exposed to Pfiesteria, to fish kills, or to fish with sores, we need to know. According to the Maryland research, the symptoms include burning skin, respiratory irritation, and problems with concentration. If you have experienced these symptoms and have potentially been exposed to Pfiesteria, a fish kill, or to fish with sores, please call our toll free hotline at 1-888-823-6915.

General questions can be addressed to the DHHS Public Affairs Office at (919) 733-9190 or 715-4174.

If you have any questions about the biology of the organism, try these websites:
NCSU Aquatic Botany Laboratory Pfiesteria piscicida Page
DHHS Pfiesteria Information

Revised Sept. 22, 1997

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