A friend and I happened to be traveling through the far reaches of Western New York this weekend, and the weather was getting hot. So, we took a little detour to a park with a beach that fronted on Lake Erie. The place was pretty deserted except for a family who were picking up rocks and an old man looking for sea glass. The water was green with large sections that were brown. A couple of the kids were ankle-deep in the water. Hoping for a swim, my friend asked the mother if anyone swam around there. She made a face and said, “I wouldn’t.”
We didn’t and that was probably a good thing. On our way out we saw a sign that said, “No Swimming by Order of the Health Department.” When we got home we heard the news about Toledo, Ohio, which lies along the western edge of Lake Erie, where health officials had advised residents not to drink the water coming out of their faucets. The order also said not to use it for brushing teeth or give it to pets. Children and the elderly were also advised not to bathe or swim in it.
The advisory came after samples taken at the city’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant had two readings for microcystins in excess of the recommended standard. Microcystins are toxins produced by blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.
According to the EPA:
The cyanotoxins include neurotoxins (affect the nervous system), hepatotoxins (affect the liver),and dermatoxins (affect the skin). The presence of high levels of cyanotoxins in recreational water and drinking water may cause a wide range of symptoms in humans including fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blisters, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, and allergic reactions. Such effects can occur within minutes to days after exposure. In severe cases, seizures, liver failure, respiratory arrest, and (rarely) death may occur. There is evidence that long-term exposure to microcystins and cylindrospermopsin may promote the growth of tumors and may cause cancer.
Toledoans bought bottled water, and the National Guard gave out 33,000 gallons of clean water to people in the area.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had warned that Lake Erie would see a significant harmful algal bloom (HAB) this summer, and they were correct. Scientists agree that the algal bloom is responsible for the contamination.
U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur said, back in July, “The reemergence of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie is an ecological and economic setback for communities along the coast. NOAA, Ohio Sea Grant, OSU, Heidelberg University and University of Toledo are developing tools to predict and target phosphorus, which will help in the fight to restore balance to Lake Erie’s ecosystem, Ohio’s greatest natural resource.”
Phosphorus, which is a key ingredient in agricultural fertilizer, along with warmer-than-usual weather both exacerbate the growth of the algae. As the bloom decays, it consumes massive amounts of oxygen, creating dead zones in the water, like the one in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of Connecticut, resulting from agricultural runoff coming down the Mississippi.
While the cyanobacteria occur naturally in the water, their excessively-high concentrations are exacerbated by numerous human activities including the widespread use of chemical fertilizer, raising livestock near the water, the warming climate, and the presence of invasive zebra mussels in the water which eat other algae that would otherwise compete. An even larger, record-setting algal bloom occurred in Lake Erie in 2011, which at the time was blamed largely on zebra mussels. Though considered a fluke at the time, it seems clear that we are likely to see more of the same in the years ahead.
While some filtration techniques that combine activated charcoal with membrane technology appear to be effective at removing most of the microcystins from the water, the approach has not yet been widely adapted. A more systemic approach would look at the amount of phosphorus being dumped into the lake as agricultural runoff and make an attempt to reduce that. A number of techniques have been applied as demonstrated in this study from New South Wales.
On Monday, Mayor D. Michael Collins announced that the ban on drinking the water was being lifted and proceeded to drink a glass of water in front of reporters. He said that the level of the toxins had dropped to the point where it was safe to drink. So life in Toledo will return to normal, but what lessons have we learned from this event?
Image credit: Stefe: Flickr Creative Commons
RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.
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