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HAB-it forming work - Task force monitors for harmful blooms

“April showers bring May flowers.”  But spring storms can also carry excess nutrients that fuel a different kind of bloom that keeps pets and people out of waterways.

Harmful algal blooms (HABs), usually caused by unregulated nutrient pollution and subsequent excessive algal growth, have become increasingly common in Lake Erie and across the country. These “blooms” can be various colors, including blue, bright green, brown, or red, and in some cases may look like paint floating on the water. While staying out of water that looks abnormal is a good practice, toxins can be present even if the water looks clear. To complicate things further, blue-green algae is not always toxic and it’s difficult to monitor blooms because HABs may move and toxicity can change rapidly. In short, it’s impossible to know without regular testing whether toxins are present.

According to Jeanette Schnars, the Executive Director of the Regional Science Consortium (RSC), during a HAB occurrence, the blue-green algae, which are actually bacteria, can produce liver and nerve toxins that threaten the health of people, pets and wildlife. They have even killed dogs that swim in or drink from infested waters. The most common are microcystin (liver toxin) and anatoxin (neurotoxin).

People and animals that do come in contact with these toxins can experience sickness, paralysis or even death so know the symptoms. Signs of HAB poisoning in people include rashes, blisters and hives, eye and nose irritations, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, numbness of lips, tingling in fingers and toes, dizziness and headache. In pets, livestock and wildlife, the signs include staggering, difficulty breathing, convulsions, drooling, yellow gums, weakness and vomiting.

While the problems caused by HABs have been studied and documented extensively, few states have programs dedicated to monitoring or reporting on these outbreaks. But since 2013 this region has a Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, which has been working on strategy implementation including: public education, source reduction initiatives, prediction methods, monitoring, planning and coordination. Led by the Pennsylvania DEP, the task force also includes the RSC, DCNR, PA Sea Grant, Erie County Department of Health and Erie Water Works.

Starting on May 24, the Regional Science Consortium began conducting weekly microtoxin monitoring at the following locations in Erie County: Presque Isle Beaches (1, 2, 6, 9, 11 and Mill Rd), Vista 3, Sturgeon Bay, Ferry Slip, Marina, Perry Monument, Erie Yacht Club, South Pier, Dobbins, Liberty Park, Niagara Boat Launch, Boaters Beach, Horseshoe Pond, Lake Cliff, Sommerheim, Shades Beach, Freeport Beach, Elk Creek, Avonia Beach, Walnut Creek and Mill Creek.

Typically HABs occur from mid-summer to early fall. However HAB advisories were posted at eight Erie County waterfront locations on May 24, warning people to keep their dogs out of the water. Testing conducted on May 31 indicated some of the locations had improved (signs removed).  Signs remained at Lake Cliff Boat Launch, Shades Beach and Walnut Creek due to continued levels dangerous for dogs. New sites that were added to the list of elevated toxins include Vista 3, Niagara Boat Launch, Presque Isle Marina, Boater’s Beach and Sturgeon Bay (new signs were posted). Water-sample testing completed on May 31 showed toxin levels at these locations exceeded what is considered safe for dogs. The advisories remain in effect until subsequent tests show the toxins have declined to a safe level.

Test results are updated each week on the websites of the health department, www.eriecountypa.gov, and the consortium, www.regsciconsort.com. For more information about HABs visit https://seagrant.psu.edu/topics/water-quality/harmful-algal-blooms

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