Area de Limnología Aplicada y Calidad de Agua. Centro de La Región Semiárida. Instituto Nacional Del Agua. Córdoba, Argentina; Facultad de Ciencias Químicas. Universidad Católica de Córdoba, Argentina. Electronic address: [Email]
Cyanobacteria can produce potent natural toxins known as cyanotoxins. Blooms of cyanobacteria, produced mainly as result of the pollution of water bodies with excessive amounts of phosphorus, represent a severe environmental problem; not only do they affect the normal equilibrium of the aquatic ecosystem but may also affect animal and human health. The occurrence of algal blooms have been increasing globally (it has been recently reported in at least 100 countries) and it has been considered by WHO as an emerging public health issue. The toxic effects of cyanotoxins have been thoroughly demonstrated in laboratory experiments, however, the effects on humans and the extent of these effects have been more difficult to assess. Epidemiological research is difficult as there are no specific symptoms or routine biomarkers to diagnose intoxication with cyanotoxins, in particular those cases associated with chronic exposure. The objectives of this study were to assess the exposure of a population settled near a lake with recurrent cyanobacteria blooms and to investigate the presence of biological markers of chronic exposure to cyanotoxins, in particular the microcystins (MCs). We first investigated the exposure of the population to cyanobacteria by using a questionnaire on how the population used the water and by analyzing water samples for the presence of cyanobacteria and total microcystins (TMCs). Secondly, we investigated the presence of biological indicators by analyzing the biochemical and immunological parameters in sera of the exposed population. The questionnaires and the water analyses revealed that the population under study (n = 47) is exposed to several exposure routes. The biochemical analyses of the sera showed the alteration of at least one hepatic enzyme in 25% of the exposed people, but this cannot be associated solely to MCs exposure. On the contrary, the immunological analyses, which included microcystin-LR specific antibodies IgE and IgG, showed significant differences between the exposed and non-exposed groups. The presence of MCs specific antibodies confirms the exposure to MCs. We propose the study of specific antibodies as a non-complex biomarker to detect chronic exposure to the toxin and to assist epidemiological studies.