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Coroner cites algae in teen's death

Experts are uncertain about toxin's role

By DON BEHM dbehm@journalsentinel.com
Last Updated: Sept. 5, 2003

After a yearlong investigation, the Dane County coroner has concluded that the mysterious death of a Cottage Grove teenager last summer likely was the first in the nation caused by exposure to a toxin released by algae. Dane Rogers Photo/File Scholarship Fund The Rogers family will award two $1,000 scholarships in their son's name to members of the Monona Grove High School soccer team, one boy and one girl. A golf outing to raise money for the scholarship program is scheduled Sept. 21 at The Oaks Golf Course off Highway TT in Cottage Grove. For information or to register, contact Mike or Kim Rogers at Stillwaters Restaurant, 250 State St., Madison.

Two days after swallowing water while splashing and diving in a scum-covered pond at a Dane County golf facility in July 2002, Dane Rogers went into shock and suffered a seizure before his heart failed, according to Coroner John Stanley's report.

Another teen, unnamed in the report, also was in the pond with Rogers and later became sick, complaining of severe diarrhea and abdominal pain. He survived.

Tests of blood and stool samples from both boys found the common blue-green algae, known as Anabaena flos-aquae, and its toxin, Anatoxin-a.

"Never in a million years did we think something like this could happen," said his father, Mike Rogers.

Kim Rogers, his mother, still recalls the evening of July 14 last year.

"It was 97 degrees that day," she said. "It was just getting dark, and they decided to cool off in there. I can just picture them jumping in the water."

"Our one wish is that golf courses would be required to put a sign up at ponds, warning of toxins in the water," she said.

Dane Rogers was 17 at the time and looking forward to his senior year at Monona Grove High School. He was captain of the school's soccer team and honored as an all-conference goalie, and a member of both the National Honor Society and French Honor Society.

"He was an all-around good kid," said his mother. Public awareness Coroner Stanley said he decided to release the report to make the public aware of the potential dangers of algal toxins in small ponds anywhere, whether at golf courses, farms or parks.

"There are a lot of ponds out there with a lot more algae than was in this one," he said. "We wanted the public to know that you should not go swimming in algae-covered ponds. Parents should even be cautious not to let children collect golf balls from golf course ponds."

Still, there is no reason for the public to panic about the presence of the toxins, according to Stanley and other investigators. While blue-green algae is common in surface water, toxins are released only after thick blooms occur in summer. The toxins are diluted significantly in lakes, rivers and reservoirs and are easily removed by conventional drinking water treatment plants.

One international algal toxin expert who participated in the investigation is not 100% convinced that Anatoxin-a caused Rogers death.

Wayne Carmichael, a professor of toxicology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has studied toxins released in algal blooms throughout the world. His laboratory received tissue, blood and other fluid samples from the two boys, which were tested for several algal toxins.

Based on animal studies, Carmichael said the amount of Anatoxin-a found in the samples could have caused the diarrhea and seizure followed by rapid death. There are no other cases of human deaths caused by Anatoxin-a for comparison, however, he said.

The reason that Carmichael doubts this explanation is the length of time that elapsed - 48 hours - between the boys frolicking in the pond and Rogers' sudden death.

"We're confident the toxin was present, but the time of death does not fit into what we know about this toxin from animal studies," he said in an interview Friday. "If it had been Anatoxin-a poisoning, he would have experienced those symptoms within a few hours. In animals, you see the effects within minutes to an hour or two."

"Otherwise, the evidence points to anatoxin," Carmichael said. "It's still puzzling to me."

Stanley, the coroner, defended his conclusion.

"The only thing that didn't fit was the time frame, but these kids may have had a stomachache or diarrhea before they told their parents," Stanley said.

"Anatoxin is the most reasonable cause of his death with the available information."

At the time, Rogers' sudden death confounded medical investigators.

An autopsy by Robert Huntington III of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical School offered no explanation. "This young person crashed and died after onset of nausea and vomiting," Huntington said in a report. "We see acute heart damage."

Huntington's conclusion: "This is a sad and vexing case."

A series of laboratory tests for pesticides, parasites and other illness-causing organisms found no clues. Analyses of brain tissue ruled out meningitis and encephalitis.

Subsequent interviews with the teenager's friends and fellow soccer teammates revealed that Rogers and four of his buddies - about 48 hours before his death - had jumped a fence at Vitense Golfland on the Beltline Highway in Madison so that they could cool off in the pond.

"They were in there horsing around," Stanley said in an interview Friday. "Pushing each other around and wrestling in the water."

While wrestling and diving, Rogers and one of the other boys had their heads underwater for varying lengths of time, according to statements made by the teens.

"They both got a mouthful of water," Stanley said.

The other boy who had been fully submerged became ill with the same symptoms of acute diarrhea and abdominal pain, the coroner said. The remaining three developed only minor symptoms.

The four survivors described the small pond to investigators as "dirty" and "scummy."

It was nearly two weeks after Rogers' death before researchers became aware of the pond as a potential source of a toxin or other cause of diarrhea.

Water samples were collected on July 26 that year, but studies were inconclusive. The samples were tested by the State Laboratory of Hygiene in Madison and the Madison Department of Public Health. The city laboratory found no illness-causing bacteria. The state laboratory found no algal toxins.

Nonetheless, Stanley concluded that the evidence linked Anabaena and anatoxin to Rogers death.

Diarrhea resulted from "incidental ingestion of the water from the pond," he says in an addendum to his original coroner's report.

From the Sept. 6, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel