More than pesky surface scum, new algae blooms are killing fish, poisoning wildlife and harming humans
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As pollution degrades our water, it also feeds a toxic outbreak that threatens our fisheries and our future.
are approaching a tipping point where we might not be able to get back
to what used to be,” said Dr. Ken Hudnell, a neurotoxicologist and
adjunct associate research professor at the University of North
“We could lose ecosystems, leaving only cesspools of cyanobacteria that can’t be used for recreation or drinking water.”
growing danger for fresh water, not only in the United States but
worldwide, exists in cellular populations described collectively as Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae,
are the most notorious, and some species are potentially harmful to
humans. Golden alga, a dinoflagellate, is a relentless killer of fish.
Didymo is a diatom that has smothered stream-beds in several states.
All are spreading and increasing the duration and intensity of their blooms.
example, golden algae obliterated all aquatic life in a 30-mile stretch
of West Virginia’s Dunkard Creek last fall. Until that kill, it was
thought to be confined mainly to brackish waters typical of rivers and
reservoirs in east Texas, Oklahoma and Wyoming. Now, resource managers
fear that another 21 streams in the state could be at risk because of
similar water conditions, as well as waterways in Pennsylvania,
Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky.
director of the Water Research Institute at West Virginia University,
said the Dunkard incident was “the worst fish kill I’ve experienced in
21 years in West Virginia.”
In Ohio, meanwhile, the Akron
Beacon Journal newspaper recently reported, “The number of [blue-green
algae] blooms producing scary toxins or poisons is growing in frequency
and duration in Lake Erie and many inland lakes and water-ways in Ohio
“The threat is gaining attention as new
testing shows the toxin microcystin from the planktonic bacteria is
present in popular recreational lakes and city water supplies, including
Late last summer, Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper
Sandy Bihn told BASS Times, “Old-time boaters say the algae is as bad
or worse than it was in the ’60s and ’70s. I think Lake Erie is poised
for something awful that will make national news.”
Florida, Hudnell said, studies have revealed that toxins from some of
these blue-green blooms “are higher in drinking water than raw water
because the cells are lysed during processing and release all their
“It’s very difficult to remove all cyanotoxins
from drinking water, and utilities don’t monitor for them. They are only
concerned about other cyanochemicals that cause taste and odor problems
— and phone calls.”
In a letter to the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA), Earthjustice said, “Potentially toxigenic
cyanobacteria have been found statewide, including river and stream
systems such as the St. Johns River in the Northeast Region and the
Caloosahatchee River in the Southwest Region.”
Frazier, a water quality expert for a municipality as well as
conservation director for the North Carolina BASS Federation Nation, has
been watching the growing assault on our waters and sounding the alarm
for some time.
“HABs are a type of canary in the coal
mine,” he said. “The fact that they are present is an indicator of an
out-of-balance ecosystems. Nothing good can outcompete them for living
space. And the space we are talking about is water — the substance that
allows us to live on this planet.
“Add to that the fact
that HABs are exchanging genetic material in order to allow them to
adapt to conditions they otherwise couldn’t tolerate, and it no longer
is a wakeup call. It’s more like a piercing scream. Unfortunately, only a
very few of us are listening.”
In fact, Hudnell resigned
from EPA because it would not start a freshwater HAB research and
control program. He and Dr. Wayne Carmichael now are leading an informal
coalition of more than 500 people in lobbying for passage of the
Freshwater Harmful Algal Bloom Research and Control Act of 2010.
an emerging story, a fascinating story, a very scary story, and an
incredibly complicated issue,” said scientist Julie Weatherington-Rice
of Ohio State University. She was speaking specifically about blue-green
blooms in Lake Erie and other Ohio waters, but her assessment also
accurately describes the HAB problem nationally.
Why is this happening?
To simplify: All blooms benefit from four “stimulatory factors,” according to Hudnell. They
are sunlight for photosynthesis, warmth (in general, the warmer the
better), nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus) and calm, even
stagnant, water (often brought on by drought).
“Good things just don’t happen in stagnant water,” he said. “A water body, like a human body, needs good circulation to function properly.”
But it is what we continue to discharge into our waters — dissolved solids, salts and particularly phosphorus-laden nutrients from our cities and agricultural lands — that drives this threat.
Lake Erie, the cure in the ’70s was the ban on phosphorus in laundry
detergent, which reduced the phosphorus in the lakes,” Bihn said. “About
1995, the phosphorus curve reversed its downward trend and began once
again increasing. This time, it is said to be dissolved phosphorus
rather than total phosphorus.”
Hudnell added, “The No. 1 problem is
too many nutrients. This allows HABs to dominate, to crowd out and
shade out the good algae. As these occur for longer times and in more
places, it’s going to be more and more difficult to reverse the trend.”
Cyanobacteria: A World Wide Nightmare
to studies by the University of North Carolina, the algae bloom like
engulfed Lake Atitlan last year is a world wide epidemic, endangering
fresh water supplies at alarming rates
In fact, Hans
Paerl, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Institute of Marine
Sciences Professor and co-author of the Science paper, calls the algae
the ‘cockroach of lakes.’ It’s everywhere and it’s hard to exterminate –
but when the sun comes up it doesn’t scurry to a corner, it’s still
there, and it’s growing, as thick as 3 feet in some areas.
In Lake Atitlan, 85 per cent of the 30,000 acre lake was recently
covered with the green scum, going as far down as 80 feet in some
The algae has been linked to digestive, neurological and skin diseases and fatal liver disease in humans.
It costs municipal water systems many millions of dollars to treat in
the United States alone. And though it’s more prevalent in developing
countries, it grows on key bodies of water across the world, including
Lake Victoria in Africa, the Baltic Sea, Lake Erie and bays of the Great
Lakes, Florida’s Lake Okeechobee and in the main reservoir for Raleigh,
‘This is a worldwide problem,’ said Paerl, Kenan
Professor of marine and environmental sciences in UNC’s College of Arts
‘It’s long been known that nutrient runoff contributes to cyanobacterial growth. Now scientists can factor in temperature and global warming,’
said Paerl, who, with professor Jef Huisman from the University of
Amsterdam, the Netherlands, explains the new realisation in Science
‘As temperatures rise waters are more amenable to blooms,’ Paerl said.
algae also thrive in wet, soggy ground in areas experiencing periodic
floods, like the U.S. Midwest. And in a drought, like the Southeastern
United States is experiencing now, other algae and aquatic organisms die
off, cyanobacteria thrive, waiting to explode
weather has also created longer growing seasons, and it’s enabled
cyanobacteria to grow in northern waters previously too cold for their
survival. Species first found in southern Europe in the 1930s now form
blooms in northern Germany, and a Florida species now grows in the
Southeastern U.S. Others have appeared recently places as far north as
Montana and throughout Canada.
and other aquatic animals and plants stand little chance against
cyanobacteria. The algae crowds the surface water, shading out plants –
fish food – below. The fish generally avoid cyanobacteria, so they’re
left without food. And when the algae die they sink to the bottom where
their decomposition can lead to extensive depletion of oxygen.
These cyanobacteria – blue-green algae – were the first plants on earth to produce oxygen.
ironic,’ Paerl said. ‘Without cyanobacteria, we wouldn’t be here.
Animal life needed the oxygen the algae produced.’ Now, however, it
threatens the health and livelihood of people who depend on infested
waters for drinking water or income from fishing and recreational use.
These algae that were first on the scene, Paerl predicts, will be the last to go… right after the cockroaches.
Source: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Public Health Advisories
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