Chronic biotoxin-associated illness: multiple-system symptoms, a vision deficit, and effective treatment

Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2005 Sep-Oct;27(5):733-43. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2005 Aug 15.


Blooms of toxigenic organisms have increased in spatial and temporal extent due to human activities and natural forces that alter ecologic habitats and pollute the environment. In aquatic environments, harmful algal blooms pose a risk for human health, the viability of organisms, and the sustainability of ecosystems. The estuarine dinoflagellate, Pfiesteria piscicida, was discovered in the late 1980s at North Carolina State University as a contaminant in fish cultures. P. piscicida was associated with fish death in laboratory aquaria, and illness among laboratory workers who inhaled the mist above aquaria. Both the fish and humans exhibited signs of toxicity. During the 1990s, large-scale mortality among fish and other aquatic organisms was associated with high concentrations of Pfiesteria sp. in estuaries on the eastern seaboard of North America from New York to Texas. Illness among humans was associated with direct exposure to estuaries and exposures to estuarine aerosols around the time of Pfiesteria-related fish kills. This review of the scientific literature on associations between Pfiesteria and human illness identified some of the possible mechanisms of action by which putative Pfiesteria toxins may have caused morbidity. Particular attention was given to the Pfiesteria-associated, human-illness syndrome known as Possible Estuary Associated Syndrome (PEAS). PEAS was characterized by multiple-system symptoms, deficits in neuropsychological tests of cognitive function, and rapid and severe decrements in visual contrast sensitivity (VCS), an indicator of neurologic function in the visual system. PEAS was diagnosed in acute and chronic illness cases, and was reacquired during re-exposure. Rapid normalization of PEAS signs and symptoms was achieved through the use of cholestyramine therapy. Cholestyramine, a non-absorbable polymer, has been used by humans to lower cholesterol levels since it was approved for that use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1958. When dissolved in water or juice and taken orally, cholestyramine binds with cholesterol, bile acids, and salts in the intestines, causing them to be eliminated rather than reabsorbed with bile during enterohepatic recirculation. Cholestyramine also has been reported to bind and eliminate a variety of toxic substances. The efficacy of cholestyramine therapy in treatment of PEAS supported the hypothesis that PEAS is a biotoxin-associated illness.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Humans
  • Marine Toxins / poisoning*
  • Neurotoxins / poisoning*
  • Seafood / poisoning*
  • Vision Disorders / chemically induced*


  • Marine Toxins
  • Neurotoxins