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Environment


Portman: Feds may have a bigger role to play ito control toxic blooms
Toledo's outbreak came a month after President Obama signed the Ohio senator's bill beefing up research on algae blooms in the Great lakes
by WKSU's M.L. SCHULTZE
and KAREN SCHAEFER


Web Editor
M.L. Schultze
 
NOAA and NASA have both participated in tracking the outbreaks on Lake Erie.
Courtesy of NASA
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In The Region:

Among those packing up their pickups with bottled water and heading to northwest Ohio this past weekend was Ohio’s U.S. Sen. Rob Portman. As WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports, Portman is also pushing a separate fight against the toxic algal blooms that forced the water ban.

LISTEN: Portman on toxic algae research and control

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Exactly one month after President Obama signed Portman’s bill beefing up research on toxic algae blooms in the Great Lakes, Toledo declared a water emergency -- shutting off the drinking water to nearly half a million people because of higher levels of the liver toxins known as microcystins.

 The water is now declared safe. But in a conference call with reporters, Portman acknowledged that more money, more research and perhaps  more regulation may be needed. And the sometimes strong critic of what he sees as federal government overreach says the feds have rightful role here. 

“Some have said, ‘Why is the federal government needed here?’ Well, local communities don’t have satellites. The monitoring is very important. On the research side, the federal government can take in best practices from all around the country and even the world. … And then finally on the mitigation effort, there are some things the federal government can do in conjunction with the local governments and the state that are very important.” 

PORTMAN on farm runoff and algal blooms
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(0:17)


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Meanwhile, Toledo Mayor Michael Collins says one thing has changed significantly since last week – at least when it comes to the toxic algae blooms that have plagued Ohio’s lakes and shut down his city’s water supply for three days. He says federal, state and local officials are talking to each other.

 

LISTEN: Collins on what's changed
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“Sometimes it takes an experience like this to put the egos out of the game, put the politics in the coatrack and move forward for the betterment of mankind. And that’s exactly what I think we’ve experienced over these past 72 hours.”

As a concrete example, he said the U.S. and Ohio EPA – as well as his city’s chemists – have agreed on a standard test to check for elevated levels in water supplies of microcystin, the liver toxin linked to toxic algae blooms that have been especially severe in western Lake Erie.

A quick explainer on toxic 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, diarrhea, 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

What it will take for another Lake Erie recovery
Monday, August 4, 2014

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

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

Ohio's EPA looks for a new strategy to battle algae
Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Exploradio: Lake Guardian studies our impact on the Great Lakes
Monday, July 14, 2014

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