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article imageDrinking and recreational waters under threat from toxic algae

By Karen Graham     Aug 14, 2015 in Environment
Toxic cyanobacteria blooms, or blue-green algae blooms are often poorly monitored and have become an under-appreciated health risk, not only in the U.S. but worldwide. There are several factors contributing to the concerns.
Rising temperatures, coupled with increased carbon dioxide levels are just one part of the problem. Added to this is the number of rivers worldwide that are being dammed, with wastewater nutrients and agricultural runoff polluting streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs.
It is a significant problem and one that needs to be taken seriously. To date, no testing for cyanobacteria is mandated in the United States at either the state or federal level, nor is the reporting of cyanobacteria illness outbreaks required. Worldwide, based on information from the World Health Organization (WHO), routine monitoring or screening programs are few and far between.
But researchers at Oregon State University and the University of North Carolina say changes in the climate and land use, as well as the increasing toxicity of the bacteria, may force health officials to take a closer look at the issue. In January, the researchers published a paper outlining the cyanobacteria problem. The research was backed by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Science Foundation.
It is appropriate the study has been brought to the public's attention, especially with it being summer because the toxic effects of blue-green algae blooms reach their peak at this time. And the toxic blooms are already affecting waters from Southern California to Alaska, as well as Lake Erie.
Cnn News reported on Thursday that toxic algae blooms have forced the closing of clam harvests and crab fisheries in Washington and Oregon recently. The algae take a lot of oxygen out of the water, and many fish are dying in places like the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.
The drinking water of communities around the Great Lakes is also being contaminated by the blue-green algae, with fish, birds and mammals dying this year. There are also reports, according to CNN of people getting sick from drinking the contaminated water.
Health officials need to start taking the toxicity of cyanobacteria seriously. I 2007, a national survey by the Environmental protection Agency found microcystin, a recognized liver toxin and potential liver carcinogen, in one out of every three lakes tested. Some of the strains of cyanobacteria also produce neurotoxins, although most strains cause gastrointestinal illnesses and allergic reactions.
"The biggest health concern with cyanobacteria in sources of drinking water is that there's very little regulatory oversight, and it remains unclear what level of monitoring is being voluntarily conducted by drinking water utilities," said Tim Otten, a postdoctoral scholar in the OSU Department of Microbiology, and lead author on the study.
The study was published in Current Environmental Health Reports in January 2015, under the title: "Health Effects of Toxic Cyanobacteria in U.S. Drinking and Recreational Waters: Our Current Understanding and Proposed Direction."
More about harmful algae blooms, Cyanobacteria, Toxins, Water quality, secondary metabolites
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