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Environment


Just what is a toxic algae bloom anyway?
Toledo water is deemed safe again, but outbreaks of the toxic stuff is likely to continue in Ohio and elsewhere
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
and ASSOCIATED PRESS


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
Download (WKSU Only)

The water ban that sent nearly half-a-million people in Ohio and Michigan scrambling for drinking water has been lifted. 

Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins called the drinking water safe and demonstrated this morning by drinking a glassful.

He declared "families can return to normal life,” after a three-day disruption that started when tests at one treatment plant showed readings for microcystin above the standard for consumption. 

It’s believed the problem originated with blue-green algal blooms in the shallow western basin of Lake Erie, which supplies Toledo’s drinking water.Alerts aboutthe blooms have repeatedly shut down lakes and reservoirs for swimmers for at least the last five years, but this is the first such large-scale alert for drinking water.


The mayor said carbon was added to the water at the point of intake and that chlorine was also added into the system to help clean the water.

Gov. John Kasich said Ohio will conduct a full review of what happened, including taking a look into Toledo's water intake system. He said it's not clear whether the algae bloom that was centered where Toledo draws water is entirely to blame.

Still, Kasich says the state will continue to determine how to reduce the algae problem.



A brief primer on blue-green algae
By Jeff St. Clair, WKSU

They’re probably the oldest living organisms on earth. 

Fossils containing cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, are more than 3.5 billion years old. Long before plants evolved, cyanobacteria perfected the energy producing process of photosynthesis, over time adding the oxygen to earth that made other life forms possible. 

Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how to classify them, but they are more closely related to bacteria than algae, hence the name cyanobacteria.

Not all blue-green algae is blue, green -- or toxic.  The Red Sea gets its name from occasional blooms of a reddish species of Oscillatoria, and African flamingos get their pink color from eating Spirulina, which is also a dietary supplement for humans.

More than a dozen types of cyanobacteria produce chemicals that are toxic to humans and animals.

The best known is microcystis which produces its namesake microcystins. There have been approximately 60 different microcystins and all of the chemicals attack the liver in humans and animals.

The World Health Organization recommends levels of mycrocytins of less than 1 ppb, that’s part per billion of drinking water, or 1 ug/L (microgram per liter), but toxicity depends on the person.  For example adults can probably handle more of the toxin than children, sick people or pregnant women.

The symptoms of microcystin poisoning include, skin irritation, stomach cramps, vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, fever, sore throat, headache, muscle and joint pain, blisters of the mouth and liver damage.

Swimmers in water containing cyanobacterial toxins may suffer allergic reactions, such as asthma, eye irritation, rashes, and blisters around the mouth and nose. 

The main cause of the current blue-green algae blooms is believed to be nutrient runoff from farm fields, lawns, gardens and septic tanks.

Phosphorus runoff is the main cause of concern for outbreaks of cyanobacteria. The shallow western end of Lake Erie is especially prone to toxic algae blooms because of the nutrients flowing from farms in western Ohio and Indiana.

Local, state and federal environmental groups are looking at ways to reduce farm runoff but these long-term solutions do little to prevent the toxic brew in the short term.

Researchers are learning more about the causes of toxic algae blooms, and some results point to a complex mix of ecology and pollution. 

Blooms of cyanobacteria tend to reoccur in the same waters once they’re established and it’s difficult, if not impossible to eliminate them entirely.

Other research shows that invasives like zebra mussels contribute to cyanobacteria growth by releasing nutrients into the water column.A wet spring and summer have made conditions worse this year as nutrients flow off farm fields, down streams, rivers, and into Lake Erie.


Related WKSU Stories

Ohio farmers team with researchers to reduce runoff
Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Portman praises toxic algae research bill expands Great Lakes research
Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Listener Comments:

We have developed a nano scale nutrient mixture called Nualgi Ponds (www.nualgiponds.com)which can mitigate and eliminate toxic algae rapidly and very cost effectively...we would like to demonstrate the product. It is entirely safe and non toxic.


Posted by: anil nanda (San Diego) on August 11, 2014 9:08AM
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