According to data recently released by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 2,300 lakes and rivers in the contiguous U.S. are host to blue-green algae blooms. Another 5,000 bodies of water in Alaska also have flowers.
Blue-green algae or cyanobacteria can produce a toxin that can be deadly to pets and harmful to humans.
What are Cyanobacteria?
Cyanobacteria naturally grow in water, usually fresh water, but they can also be found in salt or brackish water. When the water is warm, stagnant, and nutrient-rich (usually the phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizer runoff or the overflow of a septic tank), it can spiral out of control and form algae blooms.
Some flowers produce cyanotoxins, which can get into the nose, mouth, eyes, or be inhaled with water vapor.
Different cyanobacteria produce different toxins. Breeds that attack the liver, nerves and skin are most common.
NOAA satellites can actually pick up the flowers that often form in the summer and early fall. In August, poisoning cases increase for animals and humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s extremely toxic,” Lori Teller, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, told FOX Weather about dogs and the toxin. “Whether you swim in it, drink it, eat it, inhale it, it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, and it can even cause seizures and death.”
How people are affected?
Human reactions to the toxin have not been well studied, but there is evidence of skin rashes and itching, gastrointestinal distress and even low birth weight in babies born to women exposed to cyanotoxins.
A study in the Journal of Remote Sensing of Environment pointed to two cases in Ohio where the toxins contaminated drinking water. Blooms were near drinking water intakes.
“In Toledo, high levels of microcystin in the water supply in 2014 prompted city officials to issue a city-wide drinking water advisory that left 500,000 residents dependent on bottled water for 3 days,” the study’s author wrote about a particular cyanotoxin. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report 110 cases of illness due to cyanotoxins from the Toledo event, with acute gastrointestinal disease.”
The Ohio EPA issued a “don’t drink” order to the 2,000 people in Carol Township in 2013 after the local drinking water supply found dangerous levels of the toxin, according to the study.
“Humans and animals can be exposed to cyanotoxins by eating fish or shellfish from bodies of water that experience a cyanobacterial bloom,” said the study’s author. “Some studies indicate that cyanotoxins also have the potential to be taken up by agricultural crops irrigated with cyanoHAB-affected water, but research on the associated health risks is extremely limited.”
HAB is an abbreviation for a harmful algae bloom.
Mothers who recreate in a Michigan lake with a HAB caused or contributed significantly to low-birth-weight babies born in Kalamazoo and Barry counties, according to the study. Administrators estimate the cost of hospitalization for the babies at more than $760,000.
How common is cyanotoxin poisoning?
a CDC–sponsored study looked at cases of cyanotoxin from just 14 states in 2019. They found that 63 people and 367 animals suffered. No humans died, but 207 or 56% of the animals died. The authors also believe that the number of cases was vastly underreported. Symptoms generally lasted from one to seven days, but 25% of those who were intoxicated suffered from them for up to six weeks.
Of the animals killed, 90% were wild, 7% domestic, and 3% livestock.
“If you find that your pet has been exposed in any way, be sure to rinse your pet with fresh water, not the pond water, as soon as possible, and you’ll really need to seek veterinary care immediately,” Teller said. “There is no known antidote, so we want to do everything we can to stop the effects and the progression of the problem.”
Teller said animals can die within minutes to hours after being exposed to the toxin.
“Sometimes it can take days,” Teller added.
Spotting this harmful algae bloom
NOAA, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and US Geological Survey, recently began releasing satellite-identified bloom sites as part of CyAN, the Cyanobacteria Assessment Network. Check for updates and forecasts for specific regions on NOAA’s HAB forecast website. The EPA also lists resources by state on their HAB website.
Stay away from foam, foam, mats or even colorful streaks in or near a body of water that are signs of the blue-green algae bloom. Cyanobacteria are not necessarily blue or green, but can have other colors, such as brown, red or neon. When the bloom begins to die, it gives off a rotting plant smell.
Do not let your dogs sniff or eat dry mats at the edge of the pond or dead fish – these can be poisonous.
Signs of poisoning
Pets may show a lack of energy or appetite, tremor, vomit or drool excessively if they have ingested the toxin. Take the animal to a veterinarian immediately, especially if the animal became ill after contact with water.
Signs that you have been poisoned include nausea, headache, sore throat, fever, diarrhea, numbness, burning, tingling, difficulty breathing and slurred speech, depending on the cyanotoxin responsible.
There are no antidotes or human or pet treatments for cyanotoxins, so doctors treat the symptoms.
Federal officials see cyanotoxins as a growing problem.
Two of the five patented EPA technologies detect cyanotoxins in water in their “Make a Market Tech Challenge”.
“There is mounting evidence that global climate change, watershed degradation and increased nutrient loads on freshwater systems contribute to the increased frequency, severity, magnitude and wider geographic distribution of harmful algal blooms (HABs),” a CDC researcher wrote in a study. .
By informing the public and local officials of harmful flowers spotted by satellites, NASA and other agencies hope to prevent poisoning.
A 2017 study looked at one bloom on Utah Lake. The agencies notified local public health and environmental officials, who kept people and animals out of the lake.
“Detecting blooms early could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in health care,” the authors wrote in the Journal of Remote Sensing study. “We find that the availability of satellite data delivered socioeconomic benefits by improving human health outcomes to the tune of approximately $370,000… The estimate may vary significantly… (with changes or delays) in posting a recreational advisory, the number of people exposed to the cyanoHAB, the number of people with gastrointestinal complaints and the costs per case of illness.”
Although poisoning cases and flower numbers peak in August, blooms can occur year-round, so it’s important to watch out for harmful algal blooms when enjoying a body of water.