|Harmful algal blooms occur not just on coastal areas, like with this algal bloom at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland. They occur inland as well and in all 50 U.S. states. Photo: Eric Vance, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via Flickr Creative Commons (United States government work).|
TipSheet: The Spread of Harmful Algal Blooms Makes News in Multitude of Locales
By Joseph A. Davis
It stinks up the beach. It ruins fishing. It could kill your dog. Harmful algal blooms at this time of year are a serious environmental story around the United States (and globally), and are worth exploring at the local level.
In a lot of places, the algae — sometimes in the form of “red tide” — are getting worse every year. The causes are typically failure to control nutrient pollution of water and higher seasonal water temperatures, often due to climate heating.
Today, harmful algal blooms, or HABs,
are happening in many places that
have not seen them before.
Today, harmful algal blooms, or HABs, are happening in many places that have not seen them before.
People often think of HABs as happening only in coastal and estuarine waters. But algal blooms can also occur in inland waters like lakes and streams.
They happen in all 50 states, according to experts. Severity varies. Cities like Toledo, which get drinking water from Lake Erie, may have worse toxicity problems because of the shallowness of the lake and ongoing agricultural pollution.
Why it matters
Definitions vary. And algae overgrowth can cause many kinds of problems. But when some “blue-green algae” (which are actually bacteria called cyanobacteria) multiply, they can put toxins into the water which are directly toxic to water organisms, pets and humans.
These are often called “red tides” because they can turn the water red. Scientists may call them “cyanoHABs.” The toxins can get into the air too, making it hard to breathe.
Even nontoxic algae cause problems when they overgrow. The algae grow and die. Then, when the dead algae decompose, they rob the water body of its oxygen. Then these “hypoxic” low-oxygen waters kill organisms like fish or drive them elsewhere.
This is what happens in the Gulf of Mexico during its annual “dead zones.” Dead zones happen in many other places, too.
When people get sick from contact
with (or ingestion of) HAB toxins,
they can get irritation of the
eyes, throat and lungs.
When people get sick from contact with (or ingestion of) HAB toxins, they can get irritation of the eyes, throat and lungs. Other symptoms could include stomach pain, headache, muscle weakness, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea and liver damage. Sometimes the result is bad shellfish poisoning.
Anecdotally, people familiar with HABs say the problem is getting worse. What really matters most is the history of the problem in the area you are writing about. Ask experts in your community what the situation was 10 or 30 years ago.
- Look around your area for changing water conditions in the summer. There may be some prized water bodies affected by algae. What are they? Now talk to water experts about the causes and what can be done about it.
- Does your state monitor for HABs? Many do — often in order to ensure the safety of fish and shellfish, which supply valuable industries.
- Check your local universities for programs and experts on HABs and aquatic/marine pollution. Ask experts where the big problems are nearest you.
- Talk to lifeguards and managers at local beaches. Do they watch out for HABs? Do they limit public contact with water during HABs?
- Talk to local water utility officials and state officials who monitor water quality. What experiences do they have with HABs?
- Check any commercial fishing businesses and markets to see what experiences they have with HABs. Same with businesses that harvest or culture shellfish.
- Hang out at local bait shops and marinas, and talk to people about their experiences with HABs currently or in previous years.
- Ask local veterinarians whether they have ever encountered an animal poisoned by HABs.
- U.S National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms: Part of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, this clearinghouse maintains a Harmful Algae web page.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The EPA has loads of info on HABs. Try calling your regional office for a view closer to home.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: NOAA is good on estuarine HABs, especially for coastal waters and the Great Lakes. Check relevant pages from the National Ocean Service, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, the Harmful Algal BloomS Observing System and the Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring System.
- Centers for Disease Control: The health-oriented CDC focuses on the health effects of algal blooms.
- State public health agencies: A CDC-maintained list; the helpfulness of particular agencies may vary from state to state.
- State clean water agencies: An EPA-maintained list; the above caveat applies here as well.
- State Sea Grant Programs: This list provides names and contact info.
[Editor’s Note: For more on algae, see our comprehensive Issue Backgrounder, a TipSheet that covers algae and beach closures, an FEJ StoryLog on one reporter’s experience reporting on algae, plus BookShelf reviews of volumes about phosphorus and algae and about algae and the Great Lakes. And don’t forget to regularly check the latest algae news with headlines from EJToday.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 30. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.