Approximately 400,000 people in and around Toledo, Ohio are being warned not to drink their tap water after high levels of a dangerous toxin were discovered in the water supply Saturday, according to the Toledo-Lucas County Department of Health.
The toxin is called microcystin, the high levels of which were caused by massive increases in algae on Lake Erie. The increases in algae, called “algae blooms”, are poisonous if consumed — causing abnormal liver function, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, numbness, and dizziness. Boiling the water doesn’t help — in fact, it increases the presence of the toxin.
As of now, it’s unclear when Toledo residents will have clean water again. According to the Toledo Blade, fresh water samples are being flown to a specialized U.S. Environmental Protection Agency laboratory in Cincinnati, which will determine the extent of the contamination.
Here are 7 things you need to know about microcystin — what it does, why it’s there, and why it’s spreading in the five Great Lakes that form the largest system of fresh water in the world.
Toxic Algae Blooms Threaten Public Health
The threats posed to both public health by microcystis, the bacterial released from algae blooms in Lake Erie, are vast. Along with the dangers of ingesting the toxin, the algae also causes skin rashes and burns when touched, threatening swimming, boating, and other lake-related tourism industries. In Toledo, people with liver problems have been told not to take showers or wash their hands with the tap water.
Animals are especially sensitive to the toxin, and public health officials in Toldeo have warned people not to let pets drink the tap water either. Microcystis has been known to kill dogs and livestock. And though no human deaths have been recorded in the United States, Circle of Blue points out that the toxin once killed 76 people at a dialysis center in Brazil in 1996.
The Health Of Lake Erie Is Also Suffering
Human health is not the only thing at risk from rising algal blooms. The microcystis released from the algae can cause enormous dead zones in the water, killing off fish and other marine life.
As noted in a Circle of Blue report, when algal blooms sink to the bottom of the lake and die, the decomposition process uses up so much oxygen that nothing else can live on the bottom of the lake. Lake Erie has always had some seasonal dead zones, but those have grown bigger in recent years as algal blooms get larger, the report notes.
Humans Are Causing The Toxin To Multiply Faster
Algal blooms themselves are not a new phenomenon, but the increasing enormity of them are — and that can be attributed to human activity.
Experts say one of the biggest reasons for the severity of this algal bloom is excess phosphorus runoff from urban and industrial agricultural lands, as well as from waste water from sewage treatment plants. NOAA notes that this increased runoff into the lake is largely due to poor farming practices, such as high use of fertilizers and presence of livestock near water supplies. Pesticides also impact the blooms, NOAA says.
As Climate Change Worsens, So Will The Toxin
Rising temperatures and increasing carbon dioxide concentrations are also making the problem worse, according to scientists at Oregon State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
As the scientists told Ecowatch in a 2013 report, the microcystis bacteria thrive in warm, nutrient-rich waters. The microcystis-laden algae also survive better in those warmer conditions than other, non-toxic algae does. They’re the “cockroaches of the aquatic world,” according to the report.
It’s not just higher temperatures that will increase the bacteria’s presence, either. Ecowatch notes that as climate change fuels more heavy rainfall events, sewer systems are likely to be more quickly overwhelmed, leading to the release of bacteria- and pathogen-rich sewage into the lake.
This Isn’t A New Problem
In 2011, close to 20 percent of Lake Erie was covered in a similar layer of pea soup colored, scummy algal bloom. The microcystis bloom, like this one, despoiled beaches and clogged boat motors well into the fall. That bloom was blamed on torrential spring rains that hit the area fast and hard, breaking local precipitation records and practically power-washing fertilizer off nearby corn and soybean fields and into the lake.
In March, the New York Times published an in-depth look at the threat of algal blooms in Lake Erie, deeming the lake “sick” and calling the blooms “the greatest peril the lake has faced since the 1960s.”
Toldeo Is Not The Only Place At Risk
The EPA has defined toxic algal blooms as “a major environmental problem” in all 50 states. The last EPA National Lakes Assessment noted that out of more than 123,000 lakes greater than 10 acres in size spread across the U.S., at least one-third may contain the toxic algae.
It’s not just the U.S., either. Brad Plumer at Vox pointed out a 2012 paper in the Polish Journal of Environmental Studies which noted that toxic algae blooms have also shown themselves in China, Japan, Brazil, and Australia. Researchers there called the worldwide increase in blooms “one of the most serious health risks of the 21st century.”
“We need to increase public awareness of these issues,” Timothy Otten, a postdoctoral scholar in the OSU College of Science and College of Agricultural Sciences, told EcoWatch. “With a warming climate, rising carbon dioxide levels, dams on many rivers and overloading of nutrients into our waterways, the magnitude and duration of toxic cyanobacterial blooms is only going to get worse.”
The Severity Of The Blooms Can Be Prevented
To make sure a water crisis like the one in Toledo doesn’t happen again, one thing that has to happen is making sure less phosphorus is put into Lake Erie. An international commission called the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority recently issued 16 specific recommendations to assist governments in setting phosphorus reduction targets. These include restoring wetlands, which support biodiversity and filter pollutants; banning farmers from spreading manure on frozen ground in the winter; and strengthening phosphorus monitoring and research.
The Ohio Phosphorus Task Force in 2013 released a report recommending a 40 percent reduction in all forms of phosphorus that ends up in northwest Ohio’s rivers and streams that feed Lake Erie. The recommendation, however, is just that — farmers in Indiana and Michigan would need to be persuaded to get on board as well as many of their farms are part of the same watershed.