Posted by: Vicki Burns | July 5, 2016

Human Health Impacts of Blue-Green Algae Gaining More Attention

In recent weeks the daily “google alert” I have set up to capture news about algae blooms has been flooded with warnings primarily from the USA as well as a few from Canada. There have been none so far about Lake Winnipeg which is in my home province of Manitoba but we will likely see some of those later in July and August.
The problem of blue-green algae blooms ( cyanobacteria officially) is increasing each year it seems and this year Florida actually declared a state of emergency due to the severity of the bloom around Lake Okeechobee and counties in southern Florida. It is being reported that millions of dollars of revenue were lost over the July 4 holiday weekend due to toxic algae worries.

close up of blue green algae sludge

Blue-Green Algae sludge

One of the most worrying impacts of the blue-green algae is that some of it contains toxins that are released when the algal cells die and these toxins can be lethal to animals and cause very serious health problems to humans. The extent of the problem is not well known or understood yet because there has been no consistent monitoring of incidence of human illness, either in the USA or in Canada. So I was encouraged to see that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in the USA has established a new surveillance system where states can report cases of cyanotoxin related illnesses. At this point the reporting is voluntary not mandatory but hopefully it will encourage more education of both medical personnel and the public, about the possible impacts of contact with blue-green algae affected waters.
As I’ve said many times before, this is a problem that we can fix by decreasing the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that we allow to get into our waters. Improving sewage treatment, adopting best management practices in agriculture, careful development planning and restoring wetlands are all part of the solution. I’m hoping that more focus on the human health threats of exposure to blue-green algae will prompt governments everywhere to get moving on implementing the solutions. The costs of not doing so are growing.

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