Protect Yourself and Your Pets from Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)

Brian Oram, Licensed Professional Geologist

Who wants to go boating or swimming in "Pea Soup?" I'm sure no one would! However, our dogs would! 

When reading an article in a local newspaper discussing harmful algal blooms, you may think, "What do I care?  I don’t live on the lake or own a lakefront property. Are algae bad? Aren't algae part of the base of the food web or chain? Now algae are harmful – What next? Brain-eating bacteria? But, if they could hurt MY dog – I want to learn!"

What are Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)?

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are associated with the rapid and seemingly uncontrolled growth of colonies of algae in both freshwater (cyanobacteria – blue-green algae), salt water ("Red Tides/ Brown Tides"), and brackish water (Golden Algae - P. parvum).    

For freshwater systems, the primary issue is blue-green algae. Blue-green algae are a form of photosynthetic bacteria that is normally blue-green but can appear blue, green, reddish-purple, white, purple, and brown, and the water might have a fishy or gasoline-like smell.   

HABs can appear as foams, globs, mats, even small flecks, and as "scum." The slang term that some use is "pond scum." These bacteria are part of the base of the food chain, and under normal conditions, their presence is in balance with an aging ecosystem.

But if the system gets an infusion of phosphates and other nutrients and the ecosystem becomes limited by nitrogen, these organisms have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. This is especially the case if the temperature is over 75 °F. 

Because of this adaptation, mutation, or by design (note: all three hypotheses apply), this gives this organism an advantage, and it can "Take Over the System," i.e., TOO Much of One Thing is Never Good. (Unless it is LOVE)!

Many environmental articles and educators speak about living in balance with nature and give the impression that the environment is constant; IT is Not! The natural environment is in a state of "Natural Dynamic Equilibrium," which means it is NOT constant, but the "norm" or "natural condition" varies between some anticipated range.

For example, the "Natural Range" for Planet Earth is somewhere between "Snowball to Slushball Earth" and "Water World with a few land masses." 

In the cases of lakes and rivers, it is the "man-induced" changes that usually move much faster than the natural processes of these water bodies. For lakes, streams, and watersheds, man-induced changes can be called "cultural eutrophication"; whereas, eutrophication is the "natural aging process."

What Happens?

Rapid algal growth causes nuisance conditions like discolored water (red, brown, and in some cases bioluminescent), clogging of gills of fish and invertebrates, and shading of bottom vegetation. During the day, the rapid rate of photosynthesis produces high oxygen levels in the water. But at night, the respiration process and the decomposing organic material can use up the oxygen supply and cause the water to become anoxic or anaerobic.   

These algal blooms also produce "Toxins" that are harmful to people, shellfish, marine mammals, birds, pets, livestock, and fish and can create aesthetic taste and odor problems in drinking water. 

The organisms that make up the HABs include phytoplankton (diatoms/ dinoflagellates), cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), benthic algae, and macroalgae. For example, some blue-green algae produce cyanotoxins. The most commonly found cyanotoxins in the U.S. are microcystins, cylindrospermopsin, anatoxins, and saxitoxins, all of which can bioaccumulate in the food chain. 

Cyanotoxin or Blue-green algae exposure in humans can be associated with the following:

1. Contact – Skin irritations (rashes, hives, blisters).

2. Breathing – Allergic Reactions / Sore Throats.

3. Drinking Contaminated Water or Bio-accumulate in Food (Fish Tissue etc.) – Stomach Pain, Liver/ Kidney Damage, Vomiting, Diarrhea, Numbness, Headaches, difficulty breathing, and Dizziness. Cyanotoxins can enter the drinking water supply if the system experiencing the "Algae Bloom" is a drinking water reservoir. 

In pets like dogs, cyanotoxins have caused death via liver failure. The initial symptoms include physical discomfort and stress, staggered walking,  excessive salivation, vomiting, blood in stool, black (tarry) stools, jaundice, diarrhea, fatigue, convulsions, and erratic behavior. 

"Signs of poisoning can occur within 30 minutes to a few hours after exposure, depending on the size of the dog, the type of toxin, the toxin concentration, and how much toxin the dog has ingested. In severe cases, dogs can show signs of cyanobacterial poisoning within a few minutes and can die within an hour of toxin exposure….. As a precaution, do not allow dogs to swim in discolored water, roll in or eat algae piled on the beach, or run and play on beaches where humans are experiencing respiratory problems." (Source)

"Signs of poisoning can occur within 30 minutes to a few hours after exposure, depending on the size of the dog, the type of toxin, the toxin concentration, and how much toxin the dog has ingested. In severe cases, dogs can show signs of cyanobacterial poisoning within a few minutes and can die within an hour of toxin exposure…..  As a precaution, do not allow dogs to swim in discolored water, roll in or eat algae piled on the beach, or run and play on beaches where humans are experiencing respiratory problems." (Source)

If you suspect you have had contact with or swallowed water containing cyanotoxins, and experience any of the symptoms listed above, consult your healthcare provider and/or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.  

If you suspect your pet has been affected, call Pet Poison Helpline (1-855-764-7661)

Pet Poison Hotline Website Article on Blue Green Algae

How to Control? (Local Level)

We can help control the overdevelopment of HABs by developing and implementing good watershed and lake management practices. These should be used even if you do not live on a lake, along a stream, or immediately adjacent to a "body of water." Why? "Because we all live downstream."

Possible Actions:

Rural Areas:  How To Limit - "Cultural Eutrophication"

1. Maintain native vegetation on your property and maintain natural riparian buffer zones.

2. If possible, do not fertilize lawns but consider increasing the alkalinity of the soil. This will help to further limit the migration of phosphate.

3. Maintain your septic system. 

4. Use cleaning products that do NOT contain phosphate.

5. Control runoff and attempt to reduce or eliminate erosion.

6. Manage Your Stormwater 

7. If your community has a community sewage system with a stream discharge, consider developing a land-based disposal option or consider the development of water reuse applications. 

8. For Farms: Implement Manure Management Plans and Programs.

9. For Pet owners: Consider Pet Waste Management Systems. ()

10. Become a Citizen Scientist, Get Informed, then Act.

Urban Areas: How To Limit - "Cultural Eutrophication"

1. Reduce paved areas and increase groundwater recharge using bioretention and infiltration.

2. Manage your pet waste using composting or solid-waste systems. 

3. Add more native landscapes and better manage stormwater runoff. 

4. Convert your lawn from standard grass to native vegetation and use less fertilizer. 

5. Household products – Avoid using high phosphate-containing products for cleaning and laundry detergents, or even better– use phosphate-free Products. 

6. Become a Citizen Scientist, Get Informed, then Act.

Tools

Amazon: 5 Strands Blue Green Algae Test Kit, at Home Lake & Pond Water Testing

Doggie Dooley 3000 Septic-Tank-Style Pet-Waste Disposal System 

Lamotte GREEN Program Low-Cost Water Monitoring Kit

Water Quality Index Calculator for Surface Water 

Testing

Pond or Lake Testing (Tap Score)

Testing includes pH, total dissolved solids (TDS), nitrate-nitrogen, alkalinity, aluminum, iron, manganese, phosphorus, sulfate, enterococcus, total coliform, E. coli., and hardness. 

Cyanobacteria Enumeration (Tap Score)

Cyanobacteria contamination in drinking water can lead to taste and odor issues and produce toxins (called cyanotoxins) that can cause illness and even death in humans and animals.

Algal Enumeration  (Tap Score)

Concentration (colonies per milliliter) of motile, non-motile, and diatom algae.

References/ Resources /Links

Source of Exposure (CDC) 

Cyanobacteria and Your Pets (CDC)  

CDC – Tracking HABs (CDC) 

EPA HABs Web Map 

Sea Grant New York "Dogs and Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)

Amazon: A Guide to Cyanobacteria: Identification and Impact 

The Brain-Eating Amoeba (As I promised)

"Naegleria fowleri (commonly referred to as the "brain-eating amoeba" or "brain-eating amoeba") is a free-living microscopic amoeba*(single-celled living organism). It can cause a rare and devastating brain infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC))"