Innovations that Lift Society

Editor’s Note: The popular Algae 101 blog now graduates to Algae Secrets – Innovations that Lift Society. Algae Secrets celebrates algae breakthroughs that make our world better.

Algae101 introduced many people to the extraordinary value propositions from all things algae. Thank you for all the encouraging emails commenting on Algae101 posts. Algae Secrets takes algae R&D and practice to a new level examining solutions, breakthroughs and novel applications that advance the algae industry and improve lives locally, regionally and globally.

Algae Secrets’ vision: to share novel algae ideas and outcomes that make our world better.


  1. Inspire young people to green careers that benefit society locally and globally.
  2. Convey exciting breakthroughs for algae growers, processors, marketers and consumers.
  3. Cut through hype to examine realistic outcomes and to highlight credible solutions.
  4. Translate scientific breakthroughs and potentials to a broader audience.
  5. Examine how transdisciplinary innovations create new opportunities and benefits.
  6. Educate people globally about the challenges and solutions algae offer society.
  7. Imagine our future with many valuable sustainable solutions made possible by the tiniest, yet the mightiest plant on our planet.

Cutting through the hype, Algae Secrets will examine claims and integrate multiple credible sources to explain real advancements in foods, feeds, fertilizers, biofuels, nutrition, health, pollution solutions, green chemistry and bioengineering. Other essays will examine sustainable solutions in environmental resilience, international development, disaster relief and hunger remediation.

Why algae? Algae are the most important photosynthetic organisms on Earth. The over 10 million algae species capture more solar energy and produce more oxygen than the sum of the rest of the plants. Algae can be found in almost every ecosystem, due to their high adaptation ability. Algae-based biotechnology leverages their thousands of useful properties that enable superior yet sustainable products that benefit people, animals and terrestrial plants.

Algae Secrets uses the 4D sustainable solutions model:

  • Discovery – who, what and how was this did this novel finding occur?
  • Development – what and where did the development steps happen?
  • Demonstration – does the solution work at scale? Or in medicine for people?
  • Diffusion – how is the innovation being disseminated and what are adoption rates?

Mark Edwards, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Marketing and Sustainability, Arizona State University and author of 14 books in the Green Algae Strategy series, writes Algae Secrets. Mark has written both a business and a science bestseller and has won five international awards for his books focused on sustainable and affordable solutions to food and energy. He can be reached at

In this first Algae Secrets column, Mark examines algae’s potential role in solving the great water disaster now occuring in Flint, Michigan.


An algae solution for Flint, Michigan’s lead poisoning? — Part 1

Save our children’s brains and bodies.

The World Health Organization, (WHO) notes the effects of lead on young brains are “untreatable and irreversible.” Even when Flint officials reacquire clean water, hundreds of children will be left with lead locked in their brains. The CDC warns that no safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems. The longer lead persists in vital organs, the more those organs are damaged – especially the brain. An effective, safe and low cost lead poisoning treatment that removes lead from their bodies could save hundreds of children in Michigan, thousands in the U.S. and millions globally from the devastating brain and body effects from lead poisoning. This safe and simple solution that mimics nature should improve the health of children inflicted with lead poisoning. Best of all, it may enable healthier babies whose stronger brains and bodies are prepared to solve future challenges.

Flint crisis

Flint Michigan’s water supply was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014. The Flint is so notoriously dirty that some locals call it the Filth River. The change was made during a financial state of emergency for the struggling industrial town. The shift was supposed to be temporary until a new state-run supply line to Lake Huron became available. The project was estimated to take about two years but has not been completed yet.

After the switch, residents reported that the water started to look, smell and taste odd. State officials promised the water was good. The Mayor drank the water on public television to assure citizens of its quality. Residents said it looked dirty. Some people thought the color came from sewage, but it was actually iron. The Flint River is highly corrosive: 19 times more so than the Lake Huron supply, according to researchers from Virginia Tech.

(L) Flint River and Lake Huron water, (R) Corroded lead water pipes

(L) Flint River and Lake Huron water, (R) Corroded lead water pipes

Several class-action lawsuits claim the state Department of Environmental Quality was not treating the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent, in violation of federal law. Therefore, the water eroded the iron water mains, turning the water brown. But what was unseen was far worse. About half of the service lines to homes in Flint are made of lead. Since the water was not properly treated, lead leached in the water supply. The lead created far more damage to residents’ health than the iron.

The Flint water study has recently been released and shows considerable shared blame. President Obama said: “What is inexplicable and inexcusable is once people figured out that there was a problem there, and that there was lead in the water, the notion that immediately families weren’t notified, things weren’t shut down. That shouldn’t happen anywhere. On January 16, 2016, President Obama approved a declaration of emergency and request for federal aid for Flint.

hydrant bottled water

(L) A city employee flushes out a hydrant. (R) The city now passes out bottled water.

Susan Hedman, the head of the Midwest region of the EPA resigned over the water contamination crisis in Flint on January 21, 2016. She was the second EPA official to resign since the crisis unfolded. Documents indicate that the EPA was aware that lead was 30x higher than allowed levels. Not only did the EPA do nothing to remediate the lead problem, they took no action to notify the many families at imminent risk of lead poisoning.

A researcher team from Virginia Tech lead by this author did in-home testing in August 2015 and found extremely elevated levels of lead in the drinking water and made those findings public. State officials insisted their own research was more accurate. Later it became publicly known that federal law had not been followed.

A 2011 Flint River study found it would have to be treated with an anti-corrosive agent for it to be considered as a safe source for drinking water. Adding that agent would have cost about $100 a day, and experts say 90% of the problems with Flint’s water would have been avoided. Unfortunately, Flint residents were misled for 18 months, which exposed thousands of adults and children to lead poisoning. About 8,600 children are at risk according to census data.

Algae Secrets 2-1

Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH program director of the pediatric residency, Hurley Children’s Hospital at Hurley Medical Center in Flint.

A local Flint doctor, Mona Hanna-Attisha observed many childrenwith rashes  and hair loss. She heads the pediatric residents program at Hurley and is a pediatrics and human development professor at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. She also sits on the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Hanna-Attisha examined the Medicare records of blood lead levels in Flint toddlers. She discovered lead levels 2x and 3x higher than normal. At first, state officials attacked her, but then reversed course and admitted she was right.

Lead poisoning

The World Health Organization (WHO) notes in a special report on childhood lead poisoning, the effects of lead on young brains are “untreatable and irreversible.” In populations that have exposure to lead results a substantial increase in the number of children with diminished intelligence and mental retardation accompanied by a substantial reduction in the number of children with truly superior intelligence.

When lead enters the body, it aggregates in vital organs including the brain, heart, kidneys, liver and bones. The body stores lead (similar to calcium) in the teeth and bones where it bioaccumulates over time. Lead stored in bone may be remobilized into the blood during pregnancy, thus exposing the fetus. Undernourished children are highly susceptible to lead because their bodies absorb more lead if other nutrients, such as calcium, are lacking.

Lead poisoning is a well-known and potent neurotoxin. The Flint children who tested with elevated levels are likely to suffer lifelong consequences, unless a solution is found to remove the lead poisoning from their brains and body tissues. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems.

The Centers for Disease Control set the standard elevated blood lead level for adults to be 10 µg/dl of the whole blood. For children the number is set much lower at 5 µg/dl of blood. Children under the age of six are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development and lead to disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Lead poisoning drops a child’s IQ 3 to 7 points; degrades brain development, leads to abnormal behavior such as impulse control and has been linked to criminality. Even more damaging, lead poisoning imposes serious multi-generational impacts according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Mayo Clinic provides a list of lead poisoning symptoms for children and adults.

Lead poisoning symptoms in children:

  • Developmental delay and disabilities
  • Learning difficulties
  • Irritability and loss of impulse control
  • Loss of appetite and weight
  • Sluggishness and fatigue
  • Abdominal pain and constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Hearing loss

Lead poisoning symptoms in adults:
Although children are primarily at risk, lead poisoning is also dangerous for adults.

  • High blood pressure
  • Abdominal pain, constipation
  • Joint pains, muscle pain
  • Declines in mental functioning
  • Pain or numbness of the extremities
  • Headache and memory loss
  • Mood disorders
  • Reduced sperm count, abnormal sperm
The full litany of lead poisoning symptoms touches nearly all the major organs and parts of the body.

The full litany of lead poisoning symptoms touches nearly all the major organs and parts of the body.

Source: Mikael Häggström, Human body diagrams

Lead poisoning’s impacts on pregnant mothers far exceeds all other groups because it degrades the brain and body of the unborn and then the newborn child.

According to estimates made by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than three million workers in the United States are exposed to lead in the workplace. In 2004 The Washington Post drew attention to high levels of lead in D.C.’s water supply. An independent 2009 study found that around 42,000 children in D.C. had been put at risk. Therefore, a lead poisoning solution for Flint, Michigan offers benefits to several million more Americans as well as many millions of more children and adults globally.

Lead Poisoning Treatments

The WHO report says that the effects of lead on young brains are “untreatable and irreversible.” This is not quite true because there actually are treatments. Brain and body damage done by lead is irreversible but treatments that remove the bioaccumulated lead from body tissues can moderate further damage.

Available lead poisoning treatments are often harsh, time consuming and expensive. Treatment does not reverse brain and body damage that has already occurred, but can prevent further brain and major organ degradation. The two treatment models include:

  • Chelation therapy. The medication binds with the bioaccumulated lead so that it is excreted in the urine. Children may need chelation therapy at different levels than adults. There are no FDA-approved over the counter chelation products.
  • EDTA therapy. EDTA is a chemical that binds and holds on to (chelates) minerals and metals such as chromium, iron, lead, mercury, copper, aluminum, nickel, zinc, calcium, cobalt, manganese, and magnesium. Doctors treat adults with lead levels greater than 45 mcg/dL of blood with one or more of three drugs made from the chemical ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA). EDTA is a synthetic amino acid is administered in a series of intravenous infusions several times weekly for months at a time, with maintenance doses at regular intervals. These therapies are expensive, with charges paid by individual patients, as insurance companies will not pay for inappropriate use of chelation.
EDTA is FDA approved for lead chelation

EDTA is FDA approved for lead chelation

FDA approved chelating drugs in the U.S. include succimer, dimercaprol (BAL), edetate calcium disodium, deferoxamine, and penicillamine. All FDA approved drugs require a prescription. They are given only for diagnosed metal toxicity because they often impose serious side effects, even when their use is needed. Side effects include fever, a sudden drop in blood pressure, headache, nausea, vomiting, inability to create new blood cells and abnormally low blood-calcium levels. Chelating drugs are expensive and time consuming to administer because a doctor is required for administration and follow up.

The CDC warns that only CaNa2EDTA can be used for treating children with lead poisoning because it removes lead from the extra cellular compartment only, and does not enter cells. Na2EDTA (disodium edetate) should never be used for treating children with lead poisoning because it will induce tetany and possibly fatal hypocalcaemia. CaNa2EDTA causes extreme pain when administered intramuscularly. CaNa2EDTA should never be given orally because it enhances absorption of lead from the gastrointestinal tract.

EDTA is a synthetic chemical and not found naturally. EDTA may deplete important vitamins and minerals so EDTA chelation therapy is often given with essential nutrients (including calcium, B vitamins, vitamin C, and magnesium). Other heavy metal poisonings treated with chelation include mercury, arsenic, aluminum, chromium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, selenium, zinc, tin, and thallium. Chelating agents other than EDTA are also used to clear several of these substances from the bloodstream.

Chelating drugs are non-specific and can bind to essential trace metals in the body such as calcium, copper and zinc. Chelation of these substances can cause additional symptoms related to their deficiency. Several fatalities have been reported with chelation therapies due to calcium and other essential vitamin deficiencies, thought to be caused by chelation. Therefore, chelation therapy typically includes doses of essential vitamins and minerals.

Most Flint, Michigan children will not get chelating drugs due to their dollar and time costs because roughly 42% of residents live below the poverty line. This will leave excessive levels of lead in their bodies and brains, which will cause further damage.

Imagine the anxiety imposed on parents with small children whose brains and major organs are laced with lead. Pregnant mothers must be even more worried because their baby’s size, brain and physical development are likely to be severely degraded by lead poisoning.

Health experts are working to mitigate the long-term effects of lead exposure in the youngest residents, even if they cannot reverse it. Hanna-Attisha, along with others at the Hurley Medical Center, are working with Michigan State University and the Genesee County Health Department as part of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative.

The initiative includes cooking classes and an information pamphlet from MSU aimed at helping parents give their children food that will moderate the effects from lead exposure. A diet rich in iron, calcium and vitamin C can decrease absorption and increase lead excretion.

Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. The CDC estimates at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. Therefore, a solution to reduce the lead in the brains and bodies of Flint children will benefit many American families.

What is needed is a safe, low cost solution to lead poisoning that avoids the side effects associated with current treatment modalities. This solution needs to be especially effective at biosorption.

Tomorrow’s post, An Algae Solution for Flint Michigan Lead Poisoning? Part 2, offers an algae-based, inexpensive and natural treatment that should remove lead from brains and bodies.