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Toxic Algae Bloom Leaves 500,000 Without Drinking Water in Ohio

Climate

The City of Toledo has issued a “Do Not Drink" advisory for residents served by Toledo Water after chemical tests confirmed the presence of unsafe levels of the algal toxin Microcystin in the drinking water plant's finished water. The advisory, spanning three counties in Ohio and one in Michigan, leaves more than 400,000 people in the Toledo area without drinking water.

“Do not drink the water," Melanie Amato, public information officer for the Ohio Department of Health," told Circle of Blue. “You can shower in it, bathe in it, but do not try to ingest it. That means no washing dishes; you can brush your teeth with it as long as you don't swallow any water, but we recommend using bottled water for that as well."

The Toledo advisory was posted at 2 a.m. Saturday morning. Ohio governor John Kasich soon announced a state of emergency to mobilize more resources for the city.

Other emergency measures also became apparent across northwest Ohio:

  • Stores sold out of bottled water, sending residents into neighboring cities and Michigan to find supplies.
  • Local restaurants, universities and public libraries closed.
  • Several nearby municipalities that have not been affected by the toxin are offering water to Toledo residents free of charge.
  • The National Guard is charged with delivering 300 cases of bottled water from Akron, Ohio, as well as Meals Ready to Eat (MRE's) for distribution to homeless shelters and other vulnerable populations who are unable to cook with their water.
  • Humanitarian organizations like the American Red Cross are responding, manning water distribution centers and providing water delivery assistance to homebound residents.

Microcystin is a toxin produced by blooms of freshwater algae, which are a vast and growing problem in Lake Erie—Toledo's drinking water source. Microcystin can cause nausea, vomiting and liver damage if ingested, and it has been known to kill dogs and livestock that drink contaminated water. Skin contact with the toxin can also cause irritation and rashes, though levels in treated water are not high enough at this time to warrant a complete ban on water use, Amato said.

Microcystin appears to be a growing public health problem in the western portions of Lake Erie. Almost a year ago, in September 2013, Carroll Township near Toledo detected dangerous levels of Microcystin in its water supply, shut down its water treatment plant, and simultaneously alerted the community's 2,000 residents not to drink the water.

Efforts by the City of Toledo and other “point source" dischargers of phosphorus have not been enough to stop toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie. The city warned residents not to drink their water Saturday due to algal toxins. Click image to enlarge. Photo credit: Scott Strazzante / Circle of Blue

Toledo is the first major city in the Great Lakes region to fall victim to Microcystin contamination, despite testing and treatment for the toxin. The city allocated $US 4 million for water treatment chemicals last year—double what it spent in 2010. The spending increase is largely due to concerns about algal toxins. City water managers were especially worried after the Carroll Township crisis, which was alleviated by the township's ability to connect to an outside water supply while it flushed the toxin from its own system. It is unclear if Toledo has similar options available. The city's Facebook page states:

“It is understandable that there is a huge degree of public concern, but we would advise everyone to remain calm, an alternative water supply and a distribution system will be announced as quickly as possible."

Algal Bloom Small, But Concentrated

The culprit behind Toledo's drinking water problems is a toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie's Maumee Bay. The bloom is not very large compared to past blooms, and Microcystin levels, though high, are not out of the range of those previously seen on the lake.

An algal bloom spreads across Lake Erie near Point Pelee, Ontario. Blooms in the lake consist primarily of tiny cyanobacteria that can release toxins capable of causing skin rashes and burns when touched, and vomiting and liver damage if ingested. Photo credit: Tom Archer / Michigan Sea Grant.

“The bloom right now isn't big in terms of spatial coverage, but it is pretty dense in Maumee bay and that area of western Lake Erie," Justin Chaffin, a senior researcher at The Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory in Put-in-Bay, Ohio, told Circle of Blue. “It is pretty much surrounding where the Toledo water intake pipes are."

The bloom in that area is very concentrated and thick, he added.

“I'm not sure what levels they were seeing coming in through their pipes, but we were out there sampling on Wednesday and we got Microcystin levels around 10 to 20 parts per billion."

The acceptable level of Microcystin in drinking water is 1 part per billion, according to the World Health Organization. Typically, the city of Toledo is able to chemically treat their drinking water to bring Microcystin levels below that threshold, even if the intakes receive high levels of the toxin. Chaffin said that there was likely a mixing event—such as a storm or strong wind—that forced the toxic algae, which normally floats on top of the water, down to the bottom where the intakes are located.

The city is now hurrying to test water samples drawn from throughout the treatment and distribution system to track the Microcystin concentrations. Testing a batch of samples takes approximately three to four hours once the test is started, according to Chaffin.

Harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie can prompt beach closures, like this one in Sandusky Bay, Erie County, Ohio. They also pose a threat to drinking water that is supplied from the lake. The two largest algal blooms ever recorded on Lake Erie occurred in the past five years. Photo credit: Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory

“They are running water samples from hospitals, really from all over Toledo," he said. “Everyone that does Microcystin sampling in the Toledo area is either sending their [test] kits to the Oregon [Ohio] treatment plant or the city of Toledo's treatment plant. They are just swamped with samples and they were running out of kits."

Toledo is also sending water samples to labs in Cincinnati to undergo a more complete analysis. There are approximately 80 different kinds of Microcystin-producing cyanobacteria, Chaffin said. Although all are toxic, their level of toxicity varies. The more extensive tests will help to determine a more accurate level of the toxin in the water.

Algal Blooms a Growing Problem

Commonplace in Lake Erie in the 1960s, toxic algal blooms disappeared from the lake following international, national and state efforts to reduce the phosphorus pollution that drives them. The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 was especially important for reducing phosphorus from city sewage plants and other “point" sources that discharged pollutants from a pipe. The CWA, however, did little to address phosphorus runoff from farms and lawns, known as “nonpoint" sources. Researchers have shown that a rise in phosphorus levels—particularly a form of the nutrient that is readily available to promote algae growth—has coincided with renewed blooms in Lake Erie, and international agencies have called for a reduction in phosphorus to alleviate problematic blooms in Lake Erie and elsewhere in the Great Lakes. The largest bloom ever recorded on the lake occurred in 2011. Scientists and environmental groups say addressing agriculture is particularly important for reducing the blooms.

“I have every confidence in the water treatment plant to figure out how to make the drinking water safe," Adam Rissien, director of agricultural and water policy at the Ohio Environmental Council, told Circle of Blue.“Unfortunately, the options available to them are costly and that means a rate increase—there's no way around it. Until we reduce phosphorus and address harmful algal blooms, I'm afraid it's going to come on the ratepayers' backs. And that's not fair."

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A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.