The Mysterious Deaths of a Young Family on California Trail Near Toxic Algal Blooms | Who Has the Answers?

Washington (GGM) Analysis | September 20, 2021 by author and climate journalist Noreen Wise

The mysterious deaths of the young California family and their dog while out hiking along the remote Savage Lundy Trail in Devil’s Gulch in Sierra National Forest in Mariposa, California on August 15, 2021, should have us all on high alert as we enter this new high heat era that scientists know very little about. 

Heart of the matter. There are many toxins in our environment that become more dangerous in high heat, especially extreme high heat with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. These hazardous chemicals are likely to become airborne in temperatures with a heat index of 90 degrees. Examples of such toxins are the pesticides used on golf courses as well as conventional farms. These toxic pesticides — typically glyphosate and chlorpyrifos — run off the treated land during heavy rains, and spread far and wide. They’re invisible, and most are odorless, which results in the public being unaware that we’re exposed. A family might live hundreds of yards from a golf course, and not think to attribute a health condition to this unfortunate reality. In fact, doctors might be stumped and unable to quickly identify what is causing an ailment. 

This appears to be the way investigators in Mariposa, California are feeling right now as they try and solve the tragic deaths of John Gerrish, 45, his partner Ellen Chung, 30, their one-year-old daughter, Miju, and dog, Oski, who all died while hiking in the California wilderness on a hot Sunday afternoon when local thermometers hit 109 degrees.

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Important facts.

  • Harmful algal blooms (HABs, also known as cyanotoxins) were in the south fork of the Merced River a couple of miles from where the family was found. The investigators didn’t provide any information about whether the family swam or waded in the toxic water, or drank from it, although apparently they did not, since no evidence of that was discovered during the autopsies, and no information to that effect has been reported.
  • Upon testing the water, high levels of anatoxin-a (ATX) were found. ATX is also known as Very Fast Death Factor that can cause multiple conditions including breathing paralysis and death.
  • In April of this year, scientists found airborne ATX around Capaum Pond on Nantucket and weren’t clear about how it became airborne. They expressed concern: “People often recreate around these lakes and ponds with algal blooms without any awareness of the potential problems.”
  • University of Michigan researchers, Andrew Ault and Kerri Pratt, conducted a study on the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan in 2018 where toxic blue-green algal blooms appear each year en masse in the wake of agricultural run-off. They found that the waves splashing against the algal blooms along the shoreline, resulted in the toxic algal blooms becoming aerosolized. Ault and Pratt were the first to report this finding.
  • The terrain itself may have posed a problem. Steep mountain walls on all sides, with  the four bodies found along the trail on the lower section of the mountain. Hopefully investigators are researching whether thermal runaway was a contributing factor. Thermal runaway is a condition, where “an increase in temperature changes the conditions in a way that causes a further increase in temperature, often leading to a destructive result.” This likely was not the case, but because the new high heat conditions are foreign to us, scientists don’t necessarily know whether or not it was a contributing factor, and might want to research this possibility. The toxic algal blooms were located at the very bottom of the mountain range in the valley, with towering mountains on all sides. Can thermal runaway cause the toxins to become more potent and rise further in the air?

Next Steps:

  • The Savage Lundy Trail is closed until at least September 26, 2021. Investigators have been very tight-lipped about their investigation, not providing any additional details after they learned about the high levels of ATX in the Merced Rivers due to toxic algal blooms. They did not respond to our request for an update, nor whether the Savage Lundy Trail would re-open after the 26th. 
  • Murder and suicide were ruled out. 
  • Nine out of ten Americans breath polluted air that becomes that much more toxic in the high heat.
  • We all may want to consider wearing facemarks outdoors in the high heat due to the sheer volume of chemicals that become airborne.
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