Lake Erie’s algae leaves 500,000 without water

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

algal bloom
The algae growing in Lake Erie certainly don’t make the water look very drinkable! Unfortunately, chemical tests show that it’s too toxic for humans.

Lake Erie, the 4th largest lake of the five Great Lakes in North America (and the 10th biggest in the world), sometimes gets filled with algae. These tiny plant-like organisms come in many shapes, colors, and types, like the blue-green algae currently blooming on the western edge of Lake Erie. Unfortunately, a water-treatment plant found evidence that the algae are releasing a toxic substance called microcystin, and now about 500,000 people in northwestern Ohio have been told not to drink or boil tap water!

The city of Toledo is especially affected by this outbreak of unhealthy water, and experts believe the algae bloom was caused by fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns. Algae blooms usually come in the summertime, and they love devouring all the nasty nutrients being added to the lake, especially the phosphorus chemicals in fertilizers.

So, what’s so bad about these microcystins being released? Well, they’re not particularly friendly to the wildlife, because they can reduce oxygen levels and mess up the natural balance of available food for animals. The toxin-producing algae that release microcystins are pretty tough to beat, too, since they’ve been around for 3.5 billion years on Earth. Whoa! That makes them one of the oldest microorganisms on the planet. Considering Earth has only been around 4.5 billion years, that’s seriously old school.

The USA’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the government agency that protects human health and the environment, says these toxins in Lake Erie are very hard to detect and clean up. Investigators are still trying to confirm whether there actually are microcystins in the water, where the chemicals came from, and why current water treatment methods aren’t working to remove them.

Featured image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Image of algae courtesy of Olga Nohra on Flickr.