Although it has been largely overshadowed in the news by the non-stop Ebola media coverage, yesterday hundreds of thousands of residents of Ohio were told not to drink the water from their taps, and a state of Emergency was declared by the governor, when the water supply for Toledo and surrounding areas was contaminated with a harmful toxin produced by microcystis algae.
While sitting on the edge of the largest surface freshwater system on the earth (excluding the frozen icecaps), for those drawing water from areas seeing heavy blooms of blue green algae (Cyanobacteria), the words from the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are ringing all too true this weekend.
This water crisis has apparently caught many residents unprepared, but the algae threat is not new, and the rising microcystin levels have been widely reported in the media over the past couple of weeks. There were, however, broad assurances that the water plants could deal with the toxins at even higher levels than had been previously reported (See 7/24 Toledo Blade report Toxin level found in area water not harmful to residents).
The headlines from the same paper this morning, with in-depth coverage of a mad dash for increasingly scarce bottled water across the region, tell a different story.
The culprit is blue-green algae, essentially pond scum. And it has viewed as a growing problem in Lake Erie since 1995, and last year caused the temporary shutdown of a small water plant along the shores of lake Erie, albeit only affecting a couple of thousand customers.
Earlier this summer the NOAA released their forecast for this summer’s Algae bloom.
Overall bloom will be smaller than in 2013 with varying impacts across lake’s western basin
July 10, 2014
Satellite image of 2011 bloom, the worst bloom in recent years, which impacted over half of the lake shore. (Click for a high resolution image. Credit: MERIS/ESA, processed by NOAA/NOS/NCCOS)
NOAA and its research partners predict that western Lake Erie will have a significant bloom of cyanobacteria, a toxic blue-green algae, during the 2014 bloom season in late summer. However, the predicted bloom is expected to be smaller than last year’s intense bloom, and considerably less than the record-setting 2011 bloom.
(Continue . . . )
The actual impact of an algae bloom depends more on its location than it does its size, and the current bloom is clustered in near the water intake for the 4th largest city in Ohio. While the city’s water plant can scrub some level of microcystin toxin from the water, at high enough concentrations, dangerous levels can pass through the system.
For now, testing has shown the levels exceed the threshold for drinking, but not for bathing, so people can still shower. Residents are warned not to try to boil the water, as that only concentrates the toxin.
Although small levels of blue-green algae are normally present in lakes and streams, during the summer (when temps are warm, sunlight is abundant, and winds are generally light) their numbers can bloom – particularly when fed by nutrient rich fertilizer (or other pollutant) run offs.
This from the State of Ohio’s EPA.
Algal blooms have become more noticeable in Ohio’s lakes, streams and rivers during the last few years.
What is a harmful algal bloom?
A harmful algal bloom (HAB) is a large growth of bacteria that can produce toxins. These toxins may affect the liver, nervous system and/or skin.
What causes HABs to form?
Some factors that can contribute to HABs include sunlight; low-water or low-flow conditions; calm water; warmer temperatures; and excess nutrients (phosphorus or nitrogen). The primary sources of nutrient pollution are runoff of fertilizers, animal manure, sewage treatment plant discharges, storm water runoff, car and power plant emissions and failing septic tanks. The State of Ohio is currently working on a statewide nutrient reduction strategy that will document ongoing nutrient reduction activities and identify areas where more work is needed.
How dangerous are HABs?
If you touch HABs, swallow water with HAB toxins or breathe in water droplets, you could get a rash, have an allergic reaction, get a stomach ache, or feel dizzy or light-headed. HABs also are toxic to pets.
Always look for HABs before going in the water. Check for HAB advisories. Ask the park manager if there has been a recent HAB because colorless toxins can still be in water.
How will I know if there is a HAB?
HABs have different colors and looks. Some colors are green, blue-green, brown, black, white, purple, red and black. They can look like film, crust or puff balls at the surface. They also may look like grass clippings or dots in the water. Some HABs look like spilled paint, pea soup, foam, wool, streaks or green cottage cheese curd.
What should I do if I see a HAB?
- Stay out of water that may have a HAB.
- Do not let your children or pets play in HAB debris on the shore.
- After swimming or wading in lake water, even where no HABs are visible, rinse off with fresh water as soon as possible.
- Never swallow any lake or river water, whether you see HABs or not.
- Do not let pets lick HAB material from their fur or eat HAB material.
- Do not drink or cook with lake water.
- See a doctor if you or your children might be ill from HAB toxins. If your pet appears ill, contact your veterinarian.
- Report the bloom to Ohio EPA by completing the report form and emailing it to
The media is reporting an increase in the number of people presenting at local emergency room with complaints that could possibly be linked to consumption of the toxin, but it isn’t clear whether any of these cases are actually due to toxin exposure. Many are likely the `worried well’, while those with real symptoms may be due to other causes.
There is a lesson here beyond the absolute folly of dumping fertilizers, sewage, and other chemicals into our water supply.
And that is that disasters, both natural and man-made, come in many forms and can quickly disrupt essential services – like water, power, transportation, and even communications. Perhaps not as dramatic as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or a wildfire - slow motion natural disasters like algae blooms, heat waves, and droughts can have serious (even deadly) impacts as well.
Basic kit : NWS radio, First Aid Kit, Lanterns, Water & Food & cash for 3 Days minimum
The key to dealing with any emergency is knowing what to do, and already having the resources you need in place. For more information on emergency preparedness, I would invite you to visit:
AMERICAN RED CROSS http://www.redcross.org/
And some of my preparedness blogs, including: