By Donna Kemp Spangler
For the past few summers, it’s not unusual to see signs at several popular water destinations in Utah that warn the public of potential health risks associated with algal blooms. These signs are put in place by local health departments in consultation with other agencies, including the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, after water samples show high levels of cyanobacteria or cyanotoxins.
The coordinated effort involves the Utah County Health Department, the Utah Lake Commission and DEQ’s Division of Water Quality. It came about as a way to help the public understand the potential risks when blooms are present while also encouraging people to enjoy the lake while blooms subside or are not present. In summers past, the warning or closure signs were put up for the duration of the blooms, then taken down after repeated testing showed no health risk.
The permanent signs are reminders of the occasional presence of algal blooms even when water samples aren’t collected. Users should be on alert and avoid certain areas of the lake where blue-green algal mats or scum are visible. Contact can cause burning eyes, headaches, respiratory problems and rashes, and swallowing the water can cause diarrhea or other gastro symptoms. If water sample results show algal species reach established thresholds the health department can advise a warning or close that stretch of the lake.
DEQ and its partners take public health seriously and recognize the importance of communicating the potential risks responsibly.
Blooms are a natural occurrence that has been around since the dawn of time. Scientists have found certain species can produce hazardous cyanotoxins. Under certain conditions, these cyanobacteria can produce anatoxin- a, a neurotoxin and microcystins, which can affect the liver. At elevated concentrations, both toxins can be harmful to people and animals that drink the water. These are the only few cyanotoxins that can be routinely monitored.
Although algal blooms occur naturally, they are intensified by nutrient-enriched sources like urban runoff, agriculture and treated wastewater. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the main ingredients that are mixed with warm temperatures and sunlight.
The algal problem is not unique to Utah. Algal blooms are impacting water bodies across the continent including areas along both coasts. Florida, for instance, has had to close stretches of beaches. However, unlike Florida health officials, who have come under scrutiny for failing to adequately inform the public of the potential health risks connected to harmful algal blooms, Utah has taken a more cautious and robust approach to communicating the risks.
The Division of Water Quality has stepped up its monitoring and testing thanks to funding from the Utah Legislature.
DEQ’s website, habs.utah.gov., provides a detailed list of current blooms, maps the locations of samples collected and test results. It provides a hotline for reporting algal blooms and information on public health advisories, such as guidance on when cyanobacteria counts trigger advisories. The Utah Poison Control Center is listed as a contact for concerns about exposure. In addition, Utah County Health Department provides alerts via text, email or phone. Visit utahcounty.gov for more information.
Providing information is only part of the strategy. Efforts are under way to explore solutions to the problem. A Utah Lake Water Quality Study contains a broad stakeholder group working diligently to understand the issues specific to Utah Lake. Its goal is to find solutions to address the issue. For those interested in following the efforts and become part of the conversation, join the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/utahlakestudy/
I am the Communications Director for DEQ and write an occasional blog post.
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