The Dangers of Blue-Green Algae

Summer is winding down and if you are like many people, you have spent days at the lake swimming and soaking up the sun. Unfortunately, you also may have been exposed to microcystin.

Microcystin, which is toxic to human and animals, is the most common type of the chemical cyanotoxin. Cyanotoxins are a group of chemical contaminants formed by blue-green algae.

When warm weather is married with just the right type of nutrients in lakes or other bodies of water, it creates the perfect breeding ground for blue-green algae. The most common nutrients that lead to the growth of blue-green algae are phosphates from agricultural runoff. Blue-green algae also can invade ponds. Often this type of algae will appear on ponds almost overnight and can form at any depth of water.

When a significant concentration of blue-green algae develops it is known as harmful algae blooms ( HAB ). These blooms are what create toxic concentrations of cyanotoxin. HABs can occur all over the world.

If you drink or swim in water affected by microcystin you may find yourself suffering from a wide range of symptoms. These include fever, headache and vomiting. In severe cases you could experience kidney or liver damage. Children under the age of 6 are susceptible to lower levels of microcystin than are adults.

Many people believe that all contaminants in water – no matter what the type or source—can be boiled away. In the case of microcystin this is definitely not true. In fact, boiling water that contains this toxin will actually make it worse because it will become concentrated.

It is important to note that not all blue-green algae is toxic. It can be difficult to determine which is, however, because a single species of algae can have toxic and non-toxic strains. Further, algae can test non-toxic one day and turn toxic the next. It also is important to note that only lab tests can determine toxicity levels. There are some signs to watch for, however. These include dead fish, the sudden and unexpected death of a pet, water that smells and skin rashes.

What follows are some tips to prevent the growth of blue-green algae:

  • Avoid the overuse of fertilizers near bodies of water
  • Do not overfeed birds or fish
  • Maintain your septic system
  • Never allow pets or other animals to defecate in streams or lakes
  • Plant native flora around ponds and streams in order to naturally filter water

Clean water is essential to the health of you and your loved ones. If you have questions about blue-green algae or simply want more information, contact the Environmental Protection Agency or your local health department. And remember, avoiding blue-green algae or preventing its growth is in all cases easier than trying to eradicate it once it has grown.


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