Stay out of the Water: Toxic Algae’s Threat to People & Pets

September 19, 2012

This summer, a retired couple played fetch at an Indiana lake with their four dogs. Twenty four hours later, two of the dogs were dead. The lake contained blue-green algae, which can release toxins that cause liver and respiratory problems in people and prove fatal to pets, but no warning signs had been posted.

At Lake Kegonsa, Wisconsin, resort owner Frank Rybek told us, “I’ve been told by several people, Frank, we love your place, but we’re not going to allow our children into the water, so we’re not going to be back.”

We have been tracking stories like these about the impact of blue-green algae, aka cyanobacteria, in an effort to raise national awareness of the connections between how we grow our food, our health and water quality. The work is funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to promote agricultural solutions to nitrogen pollution and climate change.

This year, we counted 20 states that issued health warnings to keep people out of waterways plagued by dangerous algae.   Researchers say the main sources for the growing problem are fertilizer and manure runoff.  Sewage, stormwater and industrial discharge also add to the pollution, especially in urban areas, but those sources have been easier to reduce than agriculture’s many discharge points.

To highlight the personal cost of green slime, we compiled stories and photos in this slide show that has received over 1200 hits, with one blogger calling the visuals “horrific”.

People throughout the Midwest, and now a growing number of states all over the country, have struggled for years with the spread of blue-green algae.  The blooms create heavy losses for businesses and homeowners each year, and cause parents to worry about their kids’ safety in the water. Yet no federal agency is tracking the lake closures. It’s up to states to monitor and report on water safety, which they do with varying degrees of success.

To raise awareness, we worked with groups including Midwest Environment Advocates, Iowa Environmental Council, and Ohio Environmental Council to connect people impacted by the algae with reporters. We also curated this Scoopit page of headlines and info on the issue from across the US.

The story is starting to break. The Atlantic Monthly published Blue-Green Algae: Iridescent but Deadly by investigative reporter Jessica Marshall. Grist magazine covered it in  “Toxic green slime has taken over the lakes of America. Again.”

You can give your two cents this Thursday at 10amPST/1pmEST on a Twitter chat, using the hashtag #greenslime. Tell us if toxic algae put a bummer in your summer, and what you think ag solutions should be.

As Patrick “Buzz” Sorge of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources told the Atlantic Monthly, “We know what it takes to fix this stuff. We just have to find the social and political will to get this done.”

Penelope Whitney