Utah Poison Control Tackles Toxins during 2016 Algal Blooms

By Barbara Crouch, Guest Blogger

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community.

Utah Poison Control Call Center

Most people think of the Utah Poison Control Center (UPCC) as the go-to resource if their child/grandchild puts something in their mouth that doesn’t belong. The truth is the Poison Control Center is about more than just kids. Poison exposures can happen at any age, and while most poison exposures occur in the home and involve medications and household products, they can occur at any place and any time and may include substances natural to our environment. Last summer, UPCC collaborated with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Utah Department of Health (DOH), Utah County Health Department (UCHD) and numerous other state and local entities in response to an unusually large algal bloom that affected Utah Lake and the Jordan River Canal system. UPCC staff — pharmacists, nurses, and physicians who have additional training in toxicology — were available to respond quickly and effectively to public health concerns about possible exposures to the toxins in the algal bloom.

Calls to the UPCC about the bloom were largely about adverse health effects or the potential for adverse health effects. When Utah Lake was closed, UPCC staff  responded to numerous callers concerned about the impacts to human and animal health from exposure to lake water. On the first day alone, staff documented 246 cases in addition to the 126 “routine” Poison Center cases! Throughout the algal bloom season, UPCC staff provided advice and guidance on over 750 cases, largely involving Utah Lake and Jordan River canals, but also including Scofield Reservoir and Payson Lakes.

Harmful algal bloom on Utah Lake

Adverse health effects were documented in approximately one-third of the cases and included gastrointestinal complaints (nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) as well as headaches and skin and eye irritation. Most adverse effects were minor and didn’t require a trip to the doctor. UPCC staff were able to immediately assess the situation, offer first-aid instructions, and provide follow-up to ensure symptoms were resolving. The UPCC helped callers avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor or hospital, saving them time and money.

UPCC was able to respond quickly to the harmful algal blooms because responding to public health emergencies 24-7 is what we do every day. In addition, our ongoing collaboration with DEQ and DOH to coordinate on environmental public-health issues laid the foundation for this collaborative effort. We already had a multi-agency communication plan in place for harmful algal blooms that instructed people to contact UPCC with their concerns about adverse health effects from exposure. The plan also that helped us all speak with a unified voice right from the start.

This partnership also helped us share important information about the bloom’s health impacts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). DOH made it possible for us to access the CDC’s new One Health Harmful Algal Bloom System, a national database that tracks the effects of harmful algal blooms on human and animal health. We were able to input almost 200 cases into the system, saving DOH a great deal of staff time.

We hope there won’t be any harmful algal blooms this summer, but if there are, UPCC is ready to help. We urge members of the public to call us anytime at (800) 222-1222 with their questions or concerns, whether it’s about algal blooms or a curious toddler getting into things they shouldn’t.

We are a 24-hour resource for poison information and educational resources and serve the state of Utah with immediate phone support in a poisoning crisis. Our call center at (800) 222-1222 is staffed by certified, highly educated specialists to help you prevent poisonings and recover from poison-related accidents. Check out our website for more information about our services and resources, including educational materials, poison prevention tips, and toxic (poison) trends in Utah for e-cigarettes, marijuana, opioids, and common poisoning substances.

 I am the executive director of the Utah Poison Control Center. We are a statewide program that is housed in the Department of Pharmacotherapy, College of Pharmacy, University of Utah Health, where I also serve as a faculty member. I was born and raised in Albany, New York, but Utah has been my home for the last 27 years.