During the past several decades, a phenomenon known as harmful algal blooms (HAB) has invaded water sources in the US, leading to a plethora of negative effects. These blooms are often apparent to the naked eye, appearing as huge dense patches of green sludge at the water’s surface. There is some debate about whether the increase in HAB events is due to actual changes in the environment or to changes in observational practices. Whatever the outcome of this debate, we can say with relative certainty that these blooms have incredibly damaging effects on ecosystems, environmental health, public health and the economy.
Recent CDC Report
One location affected by this phenomenon is the Lake Erie region, where recent algal blooms have devastated the surrounding area, leaving the drinking water toxic, according to a recent report from the CDC. The report confirms that two outbreaks in the Ohio area occurring within the past several years mark the first reported instances of algal toxicity in public water sources.
In 2014, heavy winds and other environmental conditions pressed algal bloom against the Toledo shoreline in the West Lake Erie region. The proximity of the HAB to local drinking water led to extraordinarily high levels of microcystin in the water source. While 1 microgram per liter was the absolute limit, Toledo’s water source contained nearly three times that amount. This is worrisome, to say the least, as microcystin can be more dangerous than Cyanide, causing people and animals to become ill or even die.
Within the past few years, scientists have taken it upon themselves to develop methods for monitoring these blue-green algal blooms, creating underwater sample stations and deploying state-of-the art satellites that allow researchers to detect tiny blooms with breath-taking accuracy.
Scientists must contend with the fact that size is not the sole factor in determining the risk level of algal blooms. For this reason, researchers must use high-functioning robots to take samples of water and send data within hours, which is far better than collecting samples over the course of a few days.
The effects of exposure to algal toxins can range from stomach and liver illnesses to respiratory issues and rashes. That’s in addition to the mass death of wildlife affected by the infected water source. In 2013, the Lake Erie public water source reached a level of toxicity 3.5 times greater than the permissible range. As a result, six people suffered from digestive problems.
During the 2014 HAB event (mentioned above), nearly 110 people became sick as a result of exposure and 500,000 residents were forced to use other sources for their drinking water.
Causes and Solutions
At the time of the 2014 event, Adam Rissien, of the Ohio Environmental Council, proposed a possible solution: “A much better job needs to be done of managing the agricultural phosphorus that feeds the algal blooms, such as a ban on spreading manure in winter on frozen ground.”
Rissien made this proposal because it is largely believed that HAB events are caused in part by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous and excessive amounts of other nutrients. These chemicals can work their way into water systems in a number of ways.
Nitrogen and phosphorous are major components of fertilizers used in farms throughout the US. Poor management can lead to major runoff from farms into rivers that then flow into lakes and oceans where algal blooms build up over time. Chemicals might also come from sewage plants and other industrial facilities.
The Story of Todd Steele
Two years ago, Todd Steele went fishing for bass on Lake Erie. Not long after, during a car ride, he started to feel extraordinarily sick – nauseous, light-headed and covered in hives. Doctors came back with a probable diagnosis: his illness was brought on by algal toxins. “If I wasn’t a healthy 51-year-old and had some type of medical condition, it could have killed me,” Mr. Steele told reporters.
In light of such medical events, we might do well to pay attention to Mr. Rissien. Factory farms need to be held accountable for irresponsible farming practices, so people like Todd Steele don’t suffer unnecessarily.