Toxin linked to motor neuron disease found in Australian algal blooms

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Cyanobacterial blooms and algae are common in water bodies around the world. However, Australia is yet to monitor the growth of neurotoxins in our algae.

Brendan Main, University of Technology Sydney

Algal blooms in major Australian rivers are releasing a toxic chemical that may contribute to the development of motor neuron disease (MND).

My colleagues and I tested algae from waterways in New South Wales, and found that a neurotoxin called BMAA was present in 70% of samples, including those from crucial water sources such as the Darling and Murrumbidgee rivers.

This compound is well known overseas, and has been found in waterways in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. But this is the first time it has been detected in Australia. Although its presence has been suspected, it was never specifically tested until now.

Two samples containing BMAA were collected from the Murrumbidgee River, which runs through the NSW Riverina, a hotspot for MND in Australia. Positive samples were also collected in Centennial Park and Botany wetlands in central Sydney, as well as Manly Dam on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

Read more:
What we know, don’t know and suspect about what causes motor neuron disease

In the past 30 years, Australian rivers have had the dubious honour of hosting some of the largest algal blooms in history. In 1991 a bloom stretched along more than 1,200km of the Darling River, prompting the New South Wales government to declare a state of emergency. The army was mobilised to provide aid to towns.

Since then, southeast Australia has had four large blooms, most recently in 2016. The future isn’t promising either. Rising water temperatures mean blooms are likely to increase in frequency and duration in the future.

Multiple state agencies monitor populations of types of bacteria in Australia, regularly testing water quality and issuing alerts when blooms are present. This testing is necessary because of the impressive number of toxins that cyanobacteria can produce, ranging from skin irritants to liver and neurological toxins. Most of these compounds are relatively fast-acting, meaning that their effects take hold rapidly after exposure.

The neurotoxic compound BMAA, however, is not currently part of regular testing, despite links between long-term exposure to algal blooms and the development of diseases such as MND. BMAA is known to be produced by a type of freshwater and marine bacteria, as well as some species of algae.

Read more:
Watch out, Australia: a red-hot summer means blue-green algae

How BMAA affects our health

Research in America found that regular participation in water-based recreational activity resulted in a threefold increase in the risk of developing MND. Satellite mapping also revealed that lakes prone to algal blooms were often surrounded by clusters of MND patients.

Southwestern NSW has become a focus for MND researchers since 2014, due to the presence of a hotspot for MND cases around the Riverina. The town of Griffith has reported a prevalence of this disease that is nearly seven times higher than the national average of 8.7 cases per 100,000 people. Hotspots like these can help researchers identify environmental factors that contribute to diseases.

This is particularly important in MND, in which only 5-10% of patients have a family history. The other 90-95% of cases are sporadic, occurring without warning. It is possible that BMAA exposure, in association with genetic, or other environmental risk factors, contributes to the high incidence of MND in the Riverina.

Read more:
Exposure to algae toxin increases the risk of Alzheimer’s-like illnesses

BMAA also has a similar structure to the amino acids that make up the proteins in our body. We hypothesise that this contributes to its toxicity and ability to build up in animal tissue and in plants that are exposed to contaminated water.

Similar to mercury, BMAA can accumulate in the food chain, which means that people could be consuming relatively large amounts of it through their diet. A US animal study found that dietary exposure to BMAA resulted in the formation of plaques and protein tangles in the brain, which are hallmark features of neurodegeneration.

Research now needs to focus on tracking and monitoring algal blooms to detect the presence of BMAA, and determining how long it remains in the ecosystem after these blooms occur.

The ConversationThis can potentially help to reduce human exposure to BMAA. Although the factors that cause MND are many and varied, we hope this understanding could ultimately help to reduce the number of people who develop the disease.

Brendan Main, PhD Candidate, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australians will not buy electric cars without better incentives

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We need to plan for electric cars, but at this stage we need incentives – not extra taxes.
byronv2/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Anna Mortimore, Griffith University

The apparently inevitable rise of the electric car has prompted Australia’s top federal infrastructure advisor to warn of falling revenues from the petrol excise.

In a speech yesterday, Infrastructure Australia chief executive Philip Davies highlighted a need for “planning policy” for an “expected rapid uptake of electric vehicles”.

But the reality is that, unless federal policy changes, Australia is extremely unlikely to increase its very small share of electric vehicles. Far from worrying about alternative taxes, international examples suggest subsidies and incentives are required to shift a country towards low-emissions cars.

Read more:
Australia has stalled on car efficiency

The Norwegian example

For a real example of “rapid uptake”, we can look to Norway. More than 50% of consumers chose to buy an electric vehicle in 2017, compared with 40% in 2016.

We know consumers are unwilling to buy electric vehicles if they cost substantially more than conventional vehicles. Norway imposes a high stamp duty on internal combustion vehicles, and exempts battery electric vehicles from both stamp duty and the high 25% Value Added Tax. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have a lower rate of stamp duty. Such financial incentives are high enough to offset the price differences between electric and combustion vehicles.

But financial incentives alone are not enough. Norway also provides total exemption from road tolls, free car ferry travel, free recharge sites, free parking, and access to bus lanes. In effect, consumers in Norway are better off for choosing a battery electric vehicle.

These incentives were crucial for removing the price barrier and influencing demand, raising Norway’s total of electric vehicles in 2017 to 123,200.

It is projected that by 2030, up to 4 million electric vehicles will be on the road in the Nordic states. Norway and Sweden will account for 80% of the growth by 2030.

If Australia wants to achieve its estimated 230,000 electric vehicles by 2025 (and more than a million by 2030) it’s clear we need additional federal policy measures.

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Sustainable shopping: with the right tools, you can find an eco-friendly car

Australians want electric – at the right price

According to Australian surveys, half of consumers are prepared to buy an electric car, but are concerned about price, range, and infrastructure. Although state and territory governments are supporting infrastructure and introducing policies to reduce stamp duty and registration for zero- and low-emitting vehicles, more is needed.

Federal government policy has not addressed the major barrier to sales: the high price sticker of electric vehicles relative to equivalent combustion vehicles, and the long time it takes for petrol savings to “pay back” the price difference.

For example, the hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander, which emits just 41 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre, is listed in the manufacturer price guide at A$55,490. The petrol-fuelled model, which emits 211g of CO₂ per km, costs A$41,000. How many people will pay an extra A$14,490 for a low-emission car, with a nearly identical alternative available?

This is particularly important for low-end battery electric vehicles and PHEV with the longest driving range, as incentives seem to be less important for users of high-end battery electric cars like the Tesla Model S.

Without significant reductions in purchase price – through policy reform of taxes like the luxury car tax, and other incentives – it’s highly unlikely there will actually be a “rapid uptake” of electric vehicles in Australia. Low consumer demand will discourage car manufacturers form increasing the supply of electric or hybrid options in Australia, creating a vicious cycle.

Read more:
Could Australia become a dumping ground for high-emission vehicles?

The Australian Institute’s Emission Audit for December 2017, found that over the past two years emissions from road transport fuels has grown at twice the rate of GDP. This is actually offsetting any falling electricity generation emissions.

The ConversationTo put it bluntly, if Australia doesn’t get on board the global transition to low-emission vehicles, we risk not meeting our 2015 Paris Agreement commitment to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Anna Mortimore, Lecturer, Griffith Business School, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.