Identifying aerosolized cyanobacteria in the human respiratory tract: A proposed mechanism for cyanotoxin-associated diseases

Sci Total Environ. 2018 Dec 15:645:1003-1013. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.07.226. Epub 2018 Jul 20.


Cyanobacteria produce harmful toxins that have been associated with several acute conditions and chronic human diseases, like gastroenteritis, non-alcoholic liver disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Aerosol from waterbodies appears to be a likely mechanism for exposure. We conducted a study of human biospecimens focused on the cyanobacterial aerosilization process by evaluating the extent to which cyanobacteria can invade the human respiratory tract. Our study suggests that humans routinely inhale aerosolized cyanobacteria, which can be harbored in the nostrils and the lungs. Using PCR, cyanobacteria were found at high frequencies in the upper respiratory tract (92.20%) and central airway (79.31%) of our study subjects. Nasal swabs were not predictive of bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) when detecting inhaled cyanobacteria. Interestingly, we found no evidence that time of year was a significant factor for cyanobacteria positivity (BAL cytology p = 1.0 and PCR p = 1.0); (nasal swab cytology p = 0.051 and PCR p = 0.65). Additionally, we found that proximity to a waterbody was not a significant factor for cyanobacteria positivity in BAL and nasal swabs collected during cyanobacteria bloom season [May-October] (p = 0.46 and p = 0.38). These data suggest that cyanobacteria exposure may be a prevalent and chronic phenomenon not necessarily restricted to waterbodies alone. Sources of indoor exposure warrant future investigation. Given the widespread prevalence of cyanobacterial exposure in the airway, investigation of the aerosol spread of cyanotoxins, more specifically, is warranted. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that aerosol is a significant route for cyanobacteria exposure, and thus a likely route of transmission for cyanotoxin-associated human diseases.

Keywords: Aerosol exposure; Cyanobacteria; Environmental toxin; Human health; Respiration.

MeSH terms

  • Aerosols / analysis*
  • Bacterial Toxins / analysis*
  • Cyanobacteria*
  • Humans
  • Microcystins
  • Respiratory System / microbiology*


  • Aerosols
  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Microcystins