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Researchers raise concern over upsurge of cancer cases occasioned by toxins from green algae in fresh waters

Communities living around Lake Victoria have for a long time experienced negative impacts of water hyacinth including several diseases, since the weed creates excellent breeding areas for various insects.

A new headache is however in the offing, and this time round affecting even other communities living far away from the largest East African fresh water, Lake Victoria.

Green Algae blooming (cyanobacteria), the greenish substance seen floating in many fresh waters has been found to be on the increase not only around Lake Victoria, but also in boreholes, rivers and even in distilled bottled drinking water countrywide.

This has since raised concern among researchers because the greenish substance has been found to produce toxins (cyanotoxins) which are the major causes of liver cancer, currently on the rise in Nyanza region as well as other parts of the country.

According to a recent research carried out by the Maseno University in Kisumu county, Moi university (Uasin Gishu) and Masinde Muliro (Kakamega) toxins produced by algae in water samples they examined were also found to be common among  cancer patients.

The research which was done in conjunction with the Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) since 2018 was funded by the National Research Fund (NRF) to a tune of Sh19 million.

A cell molecular biologist in the Department of Zoology at the Maseno University Prof. David Onyango says cancer cases were spiking in the country despite many people putting in measures to stay safe, including eating healthy and drinking clean water.

Prof. Onyango says most presumed fresh waters including some brands of the distilled bottled water, boreholes, rivers and the lakes, where people consume directly contained toxins of up to 10.0 micrograms, which is above the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations of 0.04 micrograms.

The algae, emits specific toxins which cause liver cancer and spina bifida (a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly) although the research did not dwell on the latter, he added.

The molecular biologist says toxins were also found in the human blood samples collected from patients attending clinic in major referral hospitals in the region.

“We analyzed the blood serum for similar proteins found in the toxins and the elements were higher than the recommended level. This was so even after putting in checks on other risk factors like High blood pressure, obesity and diabetes,” he said.

On the other hand, Prof. Chrispine Kowenje from the Chemistry Department at Maseno University adds that the samples were also found to have high levels of chemicals including lead, copper, sodium and potassium making it unsuitable for direct drinking.

The researchers concur that these factors are due to human activities not only near the lake, but also uplands where there is land degradation due to poor farming practices, leading to chemicals draining into water sources.

“Activities like washing clothes and motor vehicles just like use of agricultural farm inputs including fertilizers and pesticides get into the water sources through runoff leading to water pollution,” added Prof. Kowenje.

Meanwhile, residents using the lake water directly claim they have been experiencing itchiness on the skin and stomach problems as well as diarhoea and pains.

Quinter Akinyi and Elvis Omondi of Pire beach in Homa Bay said they are having trouble washing harvested fish and white clothing as they don’t become clean due to the greenish substance.

George otieno, a boat rider and fisherman said the algae and hyacinth at times made the water impassable for boats and urged the respective county governments to act with speed to eradicate the menace.

On his part, Aquaculture Specialist, Dr. Paul Orina argues that the green algae blooming is a natural occurrence in many fresh waters, but emits toxins due to increased temperatures and light which are then consumed by microorganisms and later humans who consume those microorganisms and the affected water.

While calling for urgent research to establish ways of addressing the problem, Dr. Orina who is an Assistant Director of Freshwater Aquaculture appealed for concerted efforts to environmental conservation saying it was a big  challenge world over.

The specialist calls upon Kenyans citizens to desist from using water directly from the sources, while at the same time urging all county governments to provide clean water for domestic use.

He appeals to creators of school curriculum to consider incorporating practices of sustainable environmental conservation in books for learners.

However, the researchers reported that the research process experienced various challenges including poor access to human blood samples as they had to wait for patients during their next clinics which many failed to attend, delay of procurement kits for analysis and also delay in release of funds by the donor.

In the meantime, as the researchers wait for second phase funding to find out mitigating factors to the algae blooming in the water sources, they have published policy documents for all partners to enable concerted effort in awareness creation in the research region and are using the information for training in their respective institutions.

Evelyne Chemutai, Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology student in Department of Zoology, School of Physical and Biological Sciences, Maseno university carrying out research on green algae (cyanobacteria) in drinking water

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