Tiny Plants with a Toxic Punch

Summer is here and it’s time to jump in the water—but wait! What’s that pea-green scum floating on the surface? A harmful algae bloom. Reports of toxic algae are already popping up in several of Oregon’s favorite recreation areas for swimming, fishing and boating—keeping people out of the water and putting a damper on summer fun in places like Detroit, Lake Billy Chinook and the South Umpqua River

Blue-green algae is a serious environmental health issue. It can be toxic for people and pets if swallowed, inhaled in spray (think waterskiing) or through skin contact. Exposure can produce a variety of symptoms including numbness, tingling and dizziness that can lead to difficulty breathing or heart problems that require immediate medical attention, according to Oregon Health Authority.

So what causes this toxic soup to grow in our beautiful lakes and rivers? The perfect storm of nutrient pollution, warm water temperatures and slow-moving water.

Nutrients—the same fertilizers that make your grass green and crops grow—is great for helping algae grow,  too. Poo from pets and farm animals also adds to the load, picked up as rainwater washes over land and pavement and is deposited in waterways. Just as your tomato plants really take off when the temperature heats up, that perfect combination of food, warmth and slow-moving water helps algae blooms expand fast.

5 tips to keep your family, friends and pets safe while enjoying Oregon’s lakes and rivers this summer:

  • When in doubt, stay out! Oregon Health Authority monitors only a fraction of Oregon’s water bodies, so just because there isn’t a posted advisory doesn’t mean it’s safe. Stay out of water with a thick algae foam or scum on top of the water. Harmful blooms can be bright green, blue-green, white or brown in color. Algae bloom photo gallery.
  • Protect children and pets! Little ones are at increased risk for exposure because of their size and because they typically spend more time in the water. Take special precautions to keep them from drinking or swimming in areas with harmful algae concerns. More info on dogs and toxic algae.
  • Never drink or cook with the water where a bloom is in process. Personal water filtration devices purchased from outdoor stores and boiling water are not effective at removing the toxins.
  • Clean fish carefully. The health risks of eating fish from waters affected by algae blooms are unknown. Take extra care to remove all fat, skin and organs before cooking fish because toxins are more likely to collect in these tissues. More info on eating affected fish.
  • Beware symptoms of food poisoning. If you experience severe or persistent skin irritation, weakness, diarrhea, nausea, cramps or fainting, it may be toxic algae exposure. Call your doctor and Oregon Health Authority to report the issue. More info on symptoms of exposure.

Toxic algae blooms are part of a bigger set of challenges that we face as a state—from excessive fertilizer use and development along our waterways to climate change. Every major river in Oregon is out of compliance with water quality standards that protect human health and aquatic life, but we can improve these conditions with the right policies and investments.

Sign up for our Grassroots Action and Information Network to stay informed of how to get involved and tell policymakers to prioritize clean and plentiful water for all Oregonians.

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