There is a growing discrepancy between research that documents the increasing problem of toxic algae blooms and the actions necessary to decrease the human contributions to this problem. I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that this is big source of frustration to me. Over the past couple of decades we’ve become accustomed to news that swimming, fishing, even breathing air near some blooms, in our lakes, is not recommended, at times, based on blue-green algae being evident. The basis of my frustration is that “it doesn’t have to be this way”.We do know many of the actions we can make to decrease phosphorus getting into our waters. Free Press article about scientists warning about nutrient reduction
The USGS (United States Geological Survey) issued a report in 2016 which has just recently come to my attention. New Science Challenges Old Assumptions about Harmful Algal Blooms reports on the first ever national assessment of toxins from harmful algal blooms. The USGS in conjunction with EPA surveyed 1161 lakes and reservoirs across the USA.
In Canada the federal government department Health Canada, produced a report in 2016, Cyanobacterial Toxins in Drinking Water, the purpose of which was to establish drinking water guideline levels. Although this report primarily discusses cyanobacterial toxins in drinking water, not lakes, there is reference to the sources of the toxins which are the lakes. In 2012, Diane Orihel et al, published a report of a study of samples from 246 bodies of water across Canada which showed the cyanobacterial toxin, microcystin, present in lakes in every province.
I am referencing these studies to point out that it is apparent that there is significant concern in both Canada and the USA about the occurrence of blue-green algae in many lakes across our continent. Although not all the algal blooms contain toxins, many do and the information about the variety of toxins and their impacts is becoming more available. What this means is that we are impacting negatively the safe, clean water that human existence is dependent upon. We need to reverse this trend as soon as possible.
However the lack of concrete action is evident in my home province of Manitoba and I suspect elsewhere. In 2011 the premier of the day, announced a goal of reducing the phosphorus in Lake Winnipeg by 50%. But here we are 6 years later and still no concrete plan with annual, measurable goals for phosphorus reduction. So it remains “all talk but no action” and that is simply not good enough for our precious lakes.


In April of 2016 I sent a letter to the Minister of Health for Canada, The Honourable Jane Philpott, asking whether Health Canada would be doing any research into the presence of BMAA, a neurotoxin found in some blue-green algae, in Canadian lakes. There is growing research documenting the possible link between exposure to BMAA and motor neuron diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I received a response to that letter a few weeks ago and excerpts are below. For full text of the letter scroll to the end of the post.BMAA link to Neurodegenerative diseases

Health Canada has, in collaboration with provinces and territories, recently completed a thorough assessment of the available scientific research on cyanobacterial toxins. This comprehensive assessment has been posted online for public consultation. Although the public consultation period has now ended, the consultation document on cyanobacterial toxins in drinking water is still available at cyanobacteria-cyanobacterie/document-eng.php.

As indicated in the GCDWQ, the current scientific research on BMAA indicates that no clear, direct links can be drawn between exposure to BMAA from cyanobacteria, and neurological effects. Further investigation is needed before a cause and effect relationship between BMAA and neurological disease can be established or discounted. The present evidence does not suggest that BMAA is a water quality hazard of human health concern; however, Health Canada will continue to monitor any developments on this topic.
John Cooper
Director, Water and Air Quality Bureau
Health Canada”

So at this point although there may be some private research going on about BMAA in Canadian waters there is nothing from our federal or provincial governments. Given the devastation caused by motor neuron diseases( ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s) I think we should be taking the precautionary approach and considering BMAA a toxin to be avoided.

Health Canada

Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch

Ms. Vicki Burns Director
Save Lake Winnipeg Project

Dear Ms. Burns:

Thank you for your e-mail of April 13, 2016, addressed to the Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health, in which you raise the possibility of a link between the cyanobacterial toxin, 13-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), and motor neuron diseases. I regret the delay in responding.

In your e-mail, you provided information regarding BMAA in blue-green algae blooms, and requested that the Minister of Health consider directing Health Canada to test blue-green algae blooms in different lakes across Canada to determine if BMAA is present. The Minister appreciates the information you have provided, and it has been shared with departmental officials for their consideration.

Health Canada is involved in many activities related to water quality, especially drinking water quality. Furthermore, when considering drinking water quality, responsibility is shared between the different levels of government. The principal responsibility of ensuring the safety of drinking water generally rests with the provinces and territories. Health Canada works with the provinces and territories to develop the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality (GCDWQ). These guidelines are then used by each province and territory to help establish their own requirements for drinking water quality.

Health Canada has, in collaboration with provinces and territories, recently completed a thorough assessment of the available scientific research on cyanobacterial toxins. This comprehensive assessment has been posted online for public consultation.
Although the public consultation period has now ended, the consultation document on cyanobacterial toxins in drinking water is still available at cyanobacteria-cyanobacterie/document-eng.php.

As indicated in the GCDWQ, the current scientific research on BMAA indicates that no clear, direct links can be drawn between exposure to BMAA from cyanobacteria, and neurological effects. Further investigation is needed before a cause and effect relationship between BMAA and neurological disease can be established or discounted. The present evidence does not suggest that BMAA is a water quality hazard of human health concern; however, Health Canada will continue to monitor any developments on  this topic.
Health Canada has conducted the monitoring of raw and treated water samples as part of specific research projects, but it does not routinely test water bodies. Monitoring for BMAA or any other cyanobacterial toxins in surface waters would fall under the jurisdiction of the federal department, as well as the provincial and territorial ministries, of the environment. As the Department of Environment and Climate Change would be better able to identify any lake monitoring that may already be in place, you have taken the correct step in sending a copy of your correspondence to the Honourable Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

Again, thank you for writing.

Yours sincerely ,

John Cooper

The toxin microcystin, produced by some species of blue-green algae, has been found in mussels in San Francisco Bay in concentrations that exceed guidelines for consumption. This is significant in that shellfish along California’s coast are routinely tested for toxins coming from saltwater algae, like red tide, but have not been tested for the freshwater toxins from blue-green algae. The possible ramifications of this are widespread as the incidence of blue-green algae and the resultant toxins have been increasing throughout North America. Many of the rivers and lakes infected with toxic algae drain into coastal waters. In Florida the toxic algae blooms have hit the coast in several areas, closing beaches and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency in parts of the state the summer of 2016.Mussels densely packed on the rocks at Bedruthan Steps
I’m writing about this because it is one more red flag pointing to the urgency that we should be bringing to bear on the growing problem of blue-green algae. The solutions to decreasing this problem are within our control but to date actions to implement the solutions have been slow. Improving sewage treatment, adopting best management practices in agriculture and stopping the altering of landscapes through wetland drainage are some of the most important and “doable” actions.

Recently I attended a town hall meeting in Winnipeg put on by the Honourable Jim Carr, Minister of Natural Resources for Canada. I happen to one of his constituents but attended because of my interest in conservation and environmental stewardship as well as my hope for a healthy economy and job opportunities for Canadians now and in the future. The current focus on building pipelines to ensure jobs just seems so short-sighted that it compels me to express my views.
I was gratified to see standing room only at the meeting and to see many others of my vintage along with many younger folk who are part of the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition. As people were expressing their concerns and Minister Carr expressed the government’s view on this

pipeline close-up

TransCanada pipeline crossing Winnipeg River near Kenora

(primarily that pipelines will bring jobs and money) it occurred to me that we’re not doing workers a favour by continuing to promote expansion of an industry that is in conflict with global goals of carbon reduction. It feels like an attempt to keep dinosaurs alive even though what sustains them no longer exists.
Why are we not jumping on the bandwagon to gear up our use of natural resources of sunlight, wind, tidal power, and geo-thermal as many other jurisdictions are doing? The recently formed organization of oil sands workers Iron and Earth have recognized that their future doesn’t lie solely in oil sands work but rather in developing and maintaining the renewable energy technologies so they are calling on government to ramp up training in these areas. One example of a project they’ve promoted is a 100% renewable energy greenhouse in St. John’s Newfoundland that will offer local employment.
The government’s continued support for oil sands expansion in Canada does nothing to encourage the diversification that will facilitate Canadians’ having healthy communities, job opportunities and solid finances in the future. This story comparing the current state of 2 North American cities, Denver and Calgary, is a concrete example of how diversification rather than focus on short-term profits can be of such benefit in the long term. Denver and Calgary both had beginnings in the mid-1800s and both were built on agriculture, railroads and energy. But after the energy crisis in the 1970’s their paths diverged as Denver leaders chose to diversify its economy while Calgary continued to be lured by oil profits. Today Denver has a thriving economy while Calgary is struggling.
I usually write about water related issues and this issue does relate to water in that the threat of pipeline spills is very real. However, overall the move towards a more diversified economy based on renewable, green energy and technology, will ultimately provide greater protection to our rivers and lakes.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | September 28, 2016

Citizen Science Helps in Fight to Decrease Blue-Green Algae

Over the spring and summer of 2016, there have been numerous reports of very serious blue-green algae blooms in many waterways around the USA. According to this article, the incidence of toxic algal blooms set historic records in California and many other American states. This is not the kind of record anyone wants to see but it should prompt us as a red flag about the severity of this issue.alberta
In Canada and particularly my home province of Manitoba, we did not hear about many toxic algal blooms this summer. However before we reassure ourselves that this is an indication the problem is diminishing, we need to understand that our surveillance of algal blooms is not as comprehensive as one might expect. Around Lake Winnipeg we rely on the public’s sighting of algal blooms in the south basin of the lake and have almost no knowledge of what is happening in the much larger north basin.
As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the issue of increasing algal blooms, many of which are toxic, is a measurable problem. Even if we do not have timely or accurate knowledge of the actual blooms we can measure the amount of phosphorus (which fuels the growth of the algae) that is getting into the water and we can measure fairly accurately what region of the watershed that phosphorus is coming from. Although we can do this, at present it is not comprehensively done in my home province of Manitoba. The provincial and federal governments have done some routine testing at certain geographical points but not enough to confidently point to hot spots for phosphorus. However the recent announcement of the Citizen Science Water Sampling Project by the Lake Winnipeg Foundation has great potential to change that.taking-water-samples
In the spring and summer of 2016, the Lake Winnipeg Foundation(LWF) partnered with Conservation Districts: Seine Rat River and LaSalle-Redboine to collect water samples during the spring melt and severe rainstorms to determine the amount of phosphorus in the run-off. The samples were analyzed for phosphorus content and collated with the rate of water flow. The results will be made public once the official analysis has been completed. Next year the LWF hopes to increase the number of Conservation Districts involved with the sampling and eventually will expand it to the general public who are interested in helping.
This project has huge potential to assist in actually diagnosing where we need to focus our efforts in phosphorus reduction. We already know that our sewage treatment facilities and lagoons are point sources of phosphorus but it’s much more difficult to pinpoint sources of agricultural run-off without more comprehensive testing. This citizen monitoring is a great start to being much more focussed in our efforts to both diagnose and remediate. Its definitely good news for the health of our lakes.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | August 10, 2016

Saving our Lakes, Decreasing the Blue-Green Algae Threat

On Thursday August 25, 2016 at 7 pm I am giving a presentation at the McNally Robinson classroom (Winnipeg) on Saving Our Lakes, Decreasing the Blue-Green Algae Threat. Every summer Lake Winnipeg and many other rivers and lakes across North America are being plagued by blooms of blue-green algae, some of which contain dangerous toxins. These algae blooms are causing swimming, fishing and boating advisories that hinder our precious lake time, even threatening drinking water safety in some instances. However the good news is that we can make changes that will decrease this threat and increase the probability of our grandchildren having safe, swimmable, fishable water in our lakes.

image of 3 children splashing in water

Kids playing in safe, clean water

I am offering the presentation at McNally’s because over the past few years I have noticed, in many conversations with different people, that there is not a good general understanding of what is causing the occurrence of these algal blooms. So my goal has been to try to increase that knowledge base by offering public presentations using language geared to the general public. My hope is that the more people understand about what is causing the increased and sometimes toxic algal blooms, the greater the possibility that we can initiate action to decrease the problem.
If you or anyone you know is interested in learning more about what we can do to decrease this problem, please consider joining me on August 25. Registration can be done online at

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.

The Everglades Foundation in Florida has launched the George Barley Prize of $10 million to be awarded in 2020 to the inventor of a technology to withdraw phosphorus from lakes and estuaries in Florida that are polluting the Everglades. The problem of excess phosphorus that is causing the growth of often toxic algae is not just limited to Florida but is becoming a huge concern in many areas around the world, including Manitoba where I reside.
In Florida , Lake Okeechobee becomes the repository of much phosphorus from agricultural run-off and inadequate sewage treatment with the problem growing as heavy rainstorms intensify bringing more run-off into the lake and ultimately into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. Blue-green algae takes over the rivers causing fish kills and dangers for human health.


Caloosahatchee Algae Bloom

In Canada we have numerous lakes and rivers that are plagued by blue-green algae some of which contains dangerous toxins. Lake Winnipeg has become well known for this challenge but it is joined by many other lakes across the country suffering from the same problem. So the results of this $10 million dollar competition could be a huge help to many of our Canadian lakes .
I am surprised to see that to date, there is only one competitor from Canada out of the 49 entries, Noble Purification Inc. out of Peterborough, Ontario. $10 million should be quite an incentive to encourage others to get involved in this competition. Our lakes and rivers will appreciate all the help they can get.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | May 18, 2016

BMAA in Lake Winnipeg Warrants Further Research

Last month I posted a letter I had written to the Minister of Health for Canada asking if there was any research underway to determine the presence of BMAA in Canadian lakes. BMAA is a toxin present in some blue-green algae(cyanobacteria)in other parts of the world that may have a causal link to the occurrence of motor neuron diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in some individuals. I was not aware of any research to determine if this is a toxin that is present in Lake Winnipeg or other Canadian water bodies.BMAA link to Neurodegenerative diseases
I have not received a reply from the Minister of Health yet but I did receive some communication which alerted me to research that had occurred right here at the University of Winnipeg under the direction of Dr. Eva Pip, Department of Biology. The research paper “Seasonal Nearshore Occurrence of the Neurotoxin β-N-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) in Lake Winnipeg, Canada” was published online on April 28, 2016 by the Canadian Centre of Science and Education. Researchers took samples from 3 near shore locations in the south basin of Lake Winnipeg starting at Patricia Beach during the ice-free season between May and November, 2011. The samples were collected every 4 days and results showed that BMAA can be detected in nearshore Lake Winnipeg water in varying amounts.
There is much more research needed to determine what degree of concern we should have about BMAA and the occurrence of motor neuron diseases. At this point it’s not clear what the variety of avenues there are for human exposure to this toxin but I think the pre-cautionary principle would certainly apply and that we should be very careful to avoid exposure when blue-green algae is present.

For the last couple of years there has been increasing news about the possible connection between BMAA, a toxin in some blue-green algae, and motor neuron diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In 2014, I contacted Health Canada to see if there is any testing in Canadian waters to see if BMAA is present. Their response was that there was not enough evidence to confirm a link. Here is the letter I have just sent asking again for testing in Canada. I will publish the response I receive.

April 13, 2016
The Hon. Jane Philpott
Minister of Health, Government of Canada

Dear Dr.Phipott,

Re: Toxin BMAA in Blue-Green Algae and link to Motor Neuron Disease (Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s)
I am writing to raise the issue of the possibility of a link between a toxin present in some blue-green algae blooms, BMAA, and the incidence of motor neuron diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. In the past few years there has been research emerge from Australia and now from several locations in the USA that strengthens that possibility.

My reason for writing to you is to request that you consider directing Health Canada staff to begin testing some blue-green algae blooms in various locations across Canada to determine if BMAA is present. I contacted Health Canada in 2014 to ask if this was being done yet and was told that it is not because there is not enough evidence yet to confirm the link. I believe the body of evidence is growing which would support the need to test for the presence of that toxin in Canadian waters.
Blue-green algae (scientifically know as cyanobacteria) is becoming an increasing threat in many lakes across the country. A study 

Algae Victoria Beach Aug. 1 2010

Blue-green algae on the shores of Lake Winnipeg

released by Diane Orihel et al in 2012 showed the presence of blue-green algae in 250 lakes across Canada and the toxin, microcystin, was present in 246. Researchers from Oregon State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a study in 2013 that documented the increasing toxicity in cyanobacterial blooms. Dr. E. Stommel, a researcher and neurologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, has documented occurrence of ALS 25 times higher than expected in people living around a particular lake that has frequent algal blooms. Given this research as well as anecdotal reports (we do not have a Canadian registry of cyanobacterial occurrences) of the frequency of these blooms increasing in many lakes, it would seem wise to begin testing for toxins, like BMAA, that we know are present in cyanobacteria in other areas of the world.
In conclusion, I reiterate the importance of determining if the toxin BMAA is present in water bodies in Canada that experience frequent blue-green algae blooms given that scientists are now stating that chronic exposure to this environmental toxin, BMAA, may increase risk of neurodegenerative illness. The costs of human suffering along with the medical and care costs for the victims of these diseases, make any preventative measures a wise investment.
Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request.
Yours truly,

Vicki Burns
Director, Save Lake Winnipeg Project

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