LakeErie_NationalOceanicandAtmosphereAssoc_256x198The large blue-green algae bloom covering most of Lake Erie’s Western Basin is causing problems for drinking water treatment plants from Toledo to Marblehead as they try to keep the toxin, microcystin, from getting into the public’s drinking water.

The toxin microcystin is released as the blue-green algae dies from lack of nutrients or oxygen. The World Health Organization recommends that drinking water have no more than 1 part per billion of microcystin, but the water from Lake Erie has 50 parts per billion of microcystin. In Carroll Township, PA, the microcystin levels were so high, even after filtration, residents were advised not to drink or use the township water.

While water treatment plants have been addressing blue-green algae for about 10 years, the toxin microcystin is a fairly new problem. The EPA has not developed any regulated standards and does not require mandatory testing for microcystin in drinking water. There are no guidelines in place for steps to remove the toxin from drinking water and boiling drinking water will not remove the toxin.

“No one out there really knows what to do with it. Someone will call and say: ‘We tried this and this and got this result,” said Kelly Frey, Ottawa County, OH sanitary engineer.  “Water [treatment] plants are basically stabbing at what’s the best way to handle it.”

Exposure to the toxins in blue-green algae, like microcystin, can result in itchy, irritated eyes and skin, headaches and fever, while people and animals that ingest small amounts of water with microcystin can develop diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. More severe effects, like liver toxicity, neurotoxicity, tumor growth, or even death, result if large quantities of microcystin are ingested.

Unfortunately the blue-green algae in Lake Erie’s Western Basin is not an isolated case. Blue-green algae blooms have been found in California, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

If water treatment plants are using the trial-and-error method to determine the best way to filter out microcystin and other toxins, adding a Quench drinking water cooler with state-of-the-art filtration technology in the office break room might be a good idea.