The green gold

From cyberspace to Klamath Lake, a hunt for the truth about blue-green algae reveals the secret ecology of information.


Andrew Leonard
July 24, 1997 12:58PM (UTC)

I gazed down into the cool waters of Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake, entranced by the countless slender blue-green threads swirling in the depths. Their kaleidoscopic grace took me by surprise. I glanced up at the weather-beaten man standing nearby on the dock, waiting to rent me a canoe.

"So is this the blue-green algae I've heard so much about?" I asked.

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"Yep," he drawled. "That's the green gold."

Fans of blue-green algae from Klamath Lake call it by many names -- "earth's best superfood," "a neuro-somatic nutrient," "jet fuel." But for me, at the end of a long investigation of the shimmery substance, no phrase better captured the truth about it than "green gold." In the Klamath Basin, algae is gold -- a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-a-year business. Hundreds of thousands of self-described "algae eaters" are convinced that consuming this food supplement boosts energy and enhances mental clarity. And the numbers are growing, despite critics who denounce the whole craze as a cannily marketed New Age hoax more likely to harm your health than help it.

Panacea or public safety threat? My journey to the shores of this cold mountain lake had begun far away, on the distant fringes of the Worldwide Web, where algae hucksters proliferate. As a reporter, I wanted the truth about pond scum -- as some of the algae's more vociferous critics dismiss it. My quest had become a test case for info-age hype. An enduring fantasy of digital dreamers is that the Net is supposed to be an inexhaustible source of information, the ultimate repository of answers to every question:
The truth is in there somewhere.

Or at least I hoped so. But the truth, like algae, is a slippery substance. The Net pointed me toward it but could not deliver it into my hands. To truly understand blue-green algae -- how it smelled, how it tasted, how it played a key role in the economy of a depressed region of southern Oregon -- I had to become an algae eater myself. I had to abandon my computer, get out on that lake and commune with the algae. And even then, I had to accept that ultimate answers might remain forever hidden beneath deep blue-green waters.

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Pop the phrase "blue-green algae" into the AltaVista search engine and you will generate 3,000 hits. Not too surprising -- blue-green algae, one of nature's simplest and sturdiest life forms, exists everywhere there is fresh water. But the particular strain of blue-green algae blooming across the Net is known primarily by one name -- "Super Blue Green Algae" -- and found in only one place -- Klamath Lake.

During the summer of 1997, some 11 companies were reported to be harvesting algae from Klamath Lake. But one company, Cell Tech, is far and away the largest, claiming $200 million worth of sales in 1996. Cell Tech has trademarked the phrase "Super Blue Green Algae" -- and Cell Tech distributors market the food with relentless vigor.

Cell Tech operates according to the principles of "multilevel marketing" -- a business strategy in which distributors purchase a product at a discount, and then market that product directly to consumers, who are in turn encouraged to become distributors themselves. "Amway you can eat" is how one observer described it, and it is a tactic that adapts naturally to the Net. Hundreds of Cell Tech distributors maintain Web pages, and their missives regularly appear in e-mail boxes, bulletin boards and newsgroups touting both the wonderful benefits of consuming blue-green algae and the amazing financial opportunities of the algae business.

"Go-getters can realistically achieve $5,000-$15,000 a month in solid long residual income within two years," wrote one distributor in a direct e-mail advertisement. "Much more is possible, there are no limits."

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Cell Tech itself is no stranger to the Net. The company operates its own Web site, and declares that it reviews all distributor Web pages to ensure that they conform to its advertising guidelines. Cell Tech, which markets blue-green algae as a food, is prohibited by FDA regulations from making specific health claims, forcing a vague gauziness upon Cell Tech proclamations about Super Blue Green Algae. The algae, I would read again and again on Web page after Web page, makes people feel better because there is a "synergy to the variety of ingredients" that extends beyond "simple quantitative biochemistry."

There was nothing vague or gauzy, however, about the first thing that I saw on Cell Tech's home page. In big, bold letters at the center of the page ran the headline: "Cell Tech's response to misinformation on the Internet."

Algae salespeople aren't the only algae enthusiasts in cyberspace; phycology -- the science of algae studies -- thrives on the Net. There are Web site clearinghouses for all kinds of algae-related information. Top phycologists trade tips and discuss the latest research developments in mailing lists -- Algae-L, Diatom, Phycotoxins. Amateurs and entrepreneurs engage in algae flame wars in Usenet newsgroups like misc.health.alternative and sci.med.nutrition. There is even a virtual storefront for a commercial toxic algae exterminator, not to mention a map of Klamath Lake -- or the excerpted musings of one William Barry, author of the blue-green algae primer "The Astonishing, Magnificent, Delightful Algae."

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After a few hours of surfing I knew that the scientific name for Super Blue Green Algae is Aphanizomenon flos-aquae. I had also located the world's premier specialists in toxic algae issues -- Wright State University's Wayne Carmichael and Woods Hole Laboratories' Donald Anderson. I had been informed that Super Blue Green Algae was related to other forms of algae currently marketed as health foods, like spirulina and chlorella. And I had discovered that a significant number of health professionals regarded algae eaters as hopeless dupes.

At a site called Quackwatch, I discovered that Victor Kollman, the brother of Cell Tech founder Daryl Kollman, had been forced by the FDA to shut down a company that sold Klamath algae in the mid-'80s. Victor Kollman apparently had broken the rules about making therapeutic claims. And, according to Quackwatch, Cell Tech's distributors were no better, claiming that blue-green algae could cure everything from Attention Deficit Disorder to AIDS.

"Consumers of SBGA report that they have much more physical energy throughout the day without extreme highs or lows," one distributor posted to Usenet. "They report improved memory, mental clarity and focus; improved digestion, control of appetite and cravings, and heightened immune functions. They report relief from fatigue, hypoglycemia, PMS, anxiety and depression."

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At HealthWatch, I learned that Carmichael had written an article in Scientific American in 1995 noting that "toxic blooms" of harmful algae often occurred in the same places where Aphanizomenon flos-aquae flourished -- and that screening methods to separate good and bad algae were inadequate. And perhaps most damagingly, a Usenet-published synopsis of an article in the March Self magazine quoted none other than alternative-medicine guru Andrew Weil declaring that there wasn't "a shred of evidence to support the health claims" of Cell Tech distributors.

But Cell Tech's response to "misinformation" dealt with none of these issues. Sure, through Cell Tech's "fax on demand" service, one could obtain voluminous responses to critical articles in Self, Consumer Reports, the Vegetarian Times and the National Council Against Health Fraud. But on its home page, it chose to address two particular claims at a level of detail somewhat forbidding to the layman's eyes. First, it denied the charge that Super Blue Green Algae potentially contained a dangerous neurotoxin referred to as "anatoxin-a." Second, it ridiculed the claim that anatoxin-a, which some scientists consider a "cocaine analog," might be the reason so many devoted algae eaters testified to its energy-boosting benefits.

Why had Cell Tech chosen to respond so publicly to those particular accusations? What was the story behind the story? I had combed the Net, but couldn't answer that question. And the more I learned about algae online, the murkier the picture got: The anti-quack forces made a compelling case against Cell Tech, but some of their rhetoric was as off-putting as the obviously self-aggrandizing patter of the Cell Tech distributors. They lumped together all forms of "alternative" medicine as nonsense and myth and delighted in smearing the algae as "pond scum."

Stephen Barrett, a psychologist who maintained the Quackwatch site, told me he appreciated publishing on the Internet because it gave him a chance to put out his version of the "unmediated" truth. But I was finding it hard to force a Net full of unmediated ranting into a clear picture.

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The Net could only take me so far. I had to go deeper. I had to pick up the telephone.

I desperately wanted to talk to an electrical engineer named Mark Thorson. The man was a regular in several Usenet newsgroups, an obvious Net old-timer. And a crucial player in the story of Super Blue Green Algae and the Net. But he wasn't answering my e-mail.

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I sought him because I had determined, after a short review of a few years of blue-green algae-related Usenet postings, that when Cell Tech said "a response to misinformation on the Internet," Cell Tech meant, "a response to Mark Thorson."

Thorson is a one-man anti-Cell Tech propaganda machine. For the past four years, in almost every single instance in which a Cell Tech distributor has posted a message in either the sci.med.nutrition or misc.health.alternative newsgroups, Thorson has come blazing in with a cut-and-paste flurry of facts about health dangers associated with blue-green algae.

"My agenda is to bring an end to the abuse of the Internet for commercial advertising purposes by Cell Tech," wrote Thorson. He signed one message, "We're the Internet. To protect and to serve, that's us!"

Thorson took his campaign seriously. After reading the Scientific American article by Wayne Carmichael, he spent hours in the Stanford Medical Library. He obtained Cell Tech's FDA file. He conducted detailed comparisons of the amounts of nutrients, amino acids and minerals in a day's dose of Super Blue Green Algae and more conventional "nutritive supplements" like bananas or eggs. A college major in neurobiology, he scoffed at claims that blue-green algae eaters owed their energy boosts to glycogen, or neuropeptides, or B-12. He was convinced that Super Blue Green Algae contained a pharmacological agent -- anatoxin-a -- that acted as a stimulant. When he tried it himself, the algae made him "wired," he wrote.

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Finally, late one Saturday night, he called me -- and then refused to talk. He told me that he would soon be forced to give a legal deposition in a blue-green algae-related law suit. He would not comment, on or off the record, until after the deposition.

The deposition, I later discovered, was related to a personal injury lawsuit that a Pennsylvanian named Samuel Fineman had filed against Cell Tech. According to court documents, Fineman, an insulin-dependent diabetic, was claiming that "shortly after ingesting" Super Blue Green Algae, he had "suffered severe and adverse reactions, including but not limited to flushing of the skin and numbness of both arms and hands, lower legs and feet." Furthermore, after contacting the president of Cell Tech, Marta Kollman, "for information and assistance," the complaint alleged that Kollman had "refused to provide [Fineman] with information and/or assistance regarding his symptoms."

Neither Fineman nor his lawyer would comment on the case, due to go to trial this fall. Other algae experts familiar with the details also refused to comment, as did Kollman herself, except to tell me that the lawsuit, which she claimed was the first in Cell Tech's 14-year history, was "ludicrous."

Ludicrous or not, the lawsuit was the story behind the "misinformation" story -- the missing link I had been unable to find on the Internet that explained Cell Tech's home-page defensiveness. But though the lawsuit is invisible on the Net, ironically, it turns out to have been heavily shaped by the Net. Several people familiar with the case agreed that Fineman's legal strategy and research rely on information harvested online -- a low-budget answer to a cash-strapped plaintiff's dreams.

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Several days after my first brief conversation with Thorson, he called me again. Cell Tech, said Thorson, had dropped its efforts to subpoena him, and he was now more willing to talk.

Thorson is confident that he has made an impact on Cell Tech: "I think I've been very effective. The level of abuse of the alternative medicine and nutrition newsgroups is much less now then it was in, say, 1995. It's very quiet out there, in terms of algae. I can go for weeks waiting for someone to post something."

At least one Cell Tech distributor acknowledges that Thorson's postings had caused him to question whether he should be consuming blue-green algae.

"If it wasn't for the Net I wouldn't know what I do now," says Ralph Castro, a Long Island psychologist. "At first, I believed that the feelings of energy that one gets from the blue-green algae were due to nutritive effects. But now I believe there is a psychopharmacologic effect. But I don't know for sure. All I really know is what I've read on the Internet."

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Thorson believes he knows why so many people are pumping up Cell Tech's sales: He thinks they may be addicted to a drug.

"It definitely felt to me like a stimulant," said Thorson, describing his own experience. "It gave me a feeling of floating or flying on air ... I can see why people would enjoy that."

After talking with Thorson, I saw puzzle pieces fitting into place. What was visible through the Net alone -- that festival of unmediation -- offered only an uneasy reflection of offline reality. But it did suggest that there was a new power afoot in traditional information dynamics. A flame war in cyberspace ... a showdown in district court. There was no real dividing line. The lawsuit would bring together algae experts, Cell Tech executives and Internet gadflies. The Internet was facilitating an ecology of information that knew no boundaries, virtual or real.

But by now, I was frustrated with sifting through old Usenet postings and engaging in off-the-record phone calls. I craved more direct information.

I purchased some blue-green algae and started popping capsules. And yes, there did appear to be something happening here. I felt pepped up, even a little jittery. I had convinced myself that some kind of biochemical action was going down. I could feel it in my bowels.

But even that wasn't enough. I had exhausted the Net and made all my phone calls. The time had come to travel to the source -- to the town that time forgot: Klamath Falls.



Once upon a time, Klamath Falls was a bustling logging town. Nestling down at the south end of Klamath Lake, the city also benefited tremendously from its position next to the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad. It even operated a profitable sideline to its main sawmill business: The town is dotted with huge cold-storage facilities originally intended to warehouse produce brought up by train from California's immense Central Valley.

Today, Cell Tech owns all the cold storage in Klamath Falls, and the warehouses are filled with freeze-dried algae instead of corn and cucumbers. And today, Klamath Falls is just a shadow of its former self. Most of the sawmills are closed, and the city has been hurt badly by the construction of Interstate 5, some 70 miles to the west. Downtown Klamath Falls is filled with boarded up shops and crumbling old hotels. At 8 o'clock on a weeknight, the city is a ghost town, a likely location for a nefarious cult operation -- as some Cell Tech detractors (including some of Cell Tech's competitors) have been known to call Cell Tech.

Indeed, Cell Tech's headquarters, freshly painted and well-maintained, occupy pride of place in the center of town. An oddly ornate building festooned with faux-Egyptian detailing that once served as a Ford dealership, the headquarters is only one of 14 Cell Tech buildings in Klamath Falls. Cell Tech is one of Klamath Falls' largest employers, with 600 staffers and considerable civic clout.

Evidence of the clout is clear just north of the city center, overlooking the lake. There, a low hill is being cleared for a new consolidated center for Cell Tech operations. Construction of the buildings hasn't yet begun, but a brand new paved road winds up into the empty hill. The road is named Dan O'Brien Way, in honor of the Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete. O'Brien, Cell Tech president Marta Kollman tells me, is a major league algae eater.

As is Kollman, who keeps a stash of Cell Tech products in her desk drawer and misses no chance to sing their praises. Blond, middle-aged, charismatic and effervescent, Kollman struck me at first glance as a typical super-salesperson, adeptly sliding away from the tough questions, but able to talk at length and with enthusiasm about most aspects of Super Blue Green Algae production. It wasn't until about a quarter of the way through a two-hour tour of Cell Tech's facilities that I realized she was wearing blue-green eye shadow like a badge of honor. Even later, the full truth of Kollman's
algal sincerity was made even clearer when we entered a room adjoining
one of Cell Tech's laboratories, and she pounced upon a plastic
canister of algae powder that had been left sitting on a table.

While telling me that this was a test sample of a new algae-production process, she quickly unscrewed the canister and took a deep
whiff, then handed it to me, eyes glinting with obvious delight.
The smell
of freeze-dried algae, as Kollman herself admitted, is "an acquired
taste" -- a harsh aroma more redolent of a stagnant pond than the
health-giving bounty of nature. But the odor is anything but harsh to
Kollman -- she could hardly restrain a bodily shiver of joy as she put the
canister back down.

Until I visited Klamath Falls, Cell Tech had remained an amorphous abstraction to me. The grandiose claims of Cell Tech distributors struck me as distinctly penny ante -- a traveling salesman's snake-oil rhetoric. But after zipping across the full gamut of Cell Tech operations, chauffeured in Kollman's ultra-comfortable Mercedes, I began to see the company in a new light.

Super Blue Green Algae is big business on an industrial scale. While Cell Tech's much smaller competitors harvest the algae from the open waters of the lake using specially designed barges and small boats, Cell Tech sprawls along a canal that drains the lake and channels its water into irrigation systems feeding southern Oregon and portions of Northern California. The algae is harvested directly from the canal. On the day I visited, Cell Tech filtered some 200,000 pounds of green goo from the canal, using large, mechanized rectangular racks that scooped out the algae and channeled it into a massive system of pipes, centrifuges, freezers and assorted other industrial machinery.

Cell Tech is a magnet for all things phycological. In fact, both Wayne Carmichael and Don Anderson -- the algae experts I had tracked down on the Net -- were on site in Klamath Falls during my visit, working for Cell Tech. Anderson, the director of the National Office for Marine Biotoxins and Harmful Algal Blooms at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was testing the algae for neurotoxins, while Carmichael searched for traces of another strain of algae -- the dreaded microcystis.

I had seen references to microcystis in my online research, but buried among thousands of other facts, they hardly stood out. After talking with the people who actually get their hands wet in Klamath Lake, I realized that microcystis is the paramount safety concern in the world of commercial blue-green algae. Microcystis is a potentially lethal strain of algae -- and from time to time, it appears in Klamath Lake.

In the summer of 1996, right at the peak of the harvest season, Jacob Kann, an aquatic ecologist employed by the Klamath Indian Tribes, discovered a "toxic bloom" of microcystis algae in the lake. For reasons that phycologists don't completely understand, strains of algae can suddenly explode into high-speed growth, or "bloom." In some cases, especially with microcystis algae, the resulting flood of algae is toxic to animals and humans.

Kann alerted the Oregon Health Board. The algae harvesters halted their operations, even though the open-water harvesters claimed that they could steer away from the danger areas -- not an option for Cell Tech, which has to take whatever comes down the canal.

Canada, Great Britain and Australia all require that drinking water contain no more than one part per million of microcystis. The U.S. has no such regulation, but the Oregon Health Board is currently advocating a similar standard. Duncan Gilroy, a toxicologist for the health board, stated that he had discovered levels of microcystis in excess of one part per million in "finished product from all the algae harvesters."

Marta Kollman was reluctant to discuss microcystis. Representatives of some of the other harvesting companies have declared that the proposed standard is too strict, but Kollman declined to comment on it.

"That's the big controversy right now," said Kollman. "I don't really want to say anything about it."

Kollman did note that Cell Tech is conducting "three separate tests" aimed at discovering successful screening methods for separating microcystis from Aphanizomenon flos-aquae. And she pooh-poohed the idea that the open-water harvesters could steer away from problem areas. "That's a nice theory," she said.

Kollman did not even want to admit that the microcystis issue was the sorest point in the blue-green algae business. Reciting the standard Cell Tech line that "there is no medical evidence that anyone has been harmed by Super Blue Green Algae," she repeatedly declared her confidence that Cell Tech products are "absolutely safe."

Carmichael's role testing Super Blue Green Algae reassures Kann and Gilroy; he's a respected figure in the world of algae. But questions remain. When 200,000 pounds of algae are removed from the lake, what percentage of that algae is tested? And what of the other harvesters -- how much testing are they doing?

"We have questions about whether the testing is adequate," said Gilroy. "And we're concerned about how straightforward the entire industry has been on this problem."

Klamath Lake stretches for nearly 30 miles north of Klamath Falls. Algae is the dominant life form -- to the detriment of other creatures. Jacob Kann, the aquatic ecologist, is concerned that the lake's stock of native fish is being depleted. Agricultural runoff is supercharging the lake with nutrients, spurring the algae on, and crowding out everything else. Kann is also worried that the supercharging process may make future toxic blooms more likely.

Marta Kollman, like any good salesperson, thrives on maintaining a blissfully unworried pose. She blames last year's microcystis bloom on a spate of unseasonably hot weather. To her, the lake is a bottomless cornucopia.

"The great thing about algae is that the more you take out, the more grows back," said Kollman. "We're not worried about running out."

Running out would be a Super Blue Green disaster. Multilevel marketing requires constant growth. Cell Tech has extravagant goals for the near future -- Kollman's husband, Daryl, has challenged Cell Tech's distributors, currently numbered at around 275,000, to boost their numbers to 3 million by 1998 and 5 million by the millennium.

Tighter state or FDA regulations could hamper that growth. So could increased competition, or an unfavorable ruling in the upcoming lawsuit. The ecology of Super Blue Green Algae includes many players -- toxicologists, personal injury lawyers, pushy distributors and even Usenet bulletin-board regulars. They flow in and around each other in a pattern every bit as iridescent and endlessly motile as that of the algae itself.

Reflections of that pattern can be found on the Net, and, as I had discovered, the Net is creating new ways to link the players -- in the story of algae, or in any story. The information, which isn't necessarily the truth, is out there, albeit not always in plain sight. And always, of course, warped by hidden motives.

Perhaps that's how it should be. Perhaps we should not look to
the Net for answers, but only for starting points. It's unwise, in any
case, to count on neatly wrapped packages of ultimate truth, available
for easy download in the not too distant future. In my algae odyssey, I
had grasped some measure of certifiable fact. I was convinced that there
are potential health hazards associated with consuming Super Blue Green
Algae. But it was also clear that algae eaters aren't hopeless dupes --
that they are getting something for their money.

I, for one, am grateful that I followed the trail as far as I did. If I hadn't, I would never have learned one truth about pond scum: that you cannot find it on the open waters of Klamath Lake. The dancing green tendrils of Aphanizomenon flos-aquae are full of all the mystery and wonder of life; to call the algae "pond scum" is to fling a mortal insult. Better, perhaps, to see its restless complexity as a metaphor for truth. That might do the stuff justice.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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