Guarding Against Toxic Algae Outbreaks

Increasing water temperatures and nutrient pollution are creating ideal conditions for outbreaks of toxic algae throughout Idaho.

What Is Toxic Algae?

Most algae are a natural part of an ecosystem and pose no threat to the health of humans or animals. However, across the United States, including Idaho, we’re seeing more and more outbreaks of toxic algae — specific types of algae and bacteria that can seriously harm humans and animals. The most common toxic algae is cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, though they can be many colors, including blue, green, red or brown.

What’s Causing These Toxic Algae Outbreaks?

Algae outbreaks or “blooms” occur when conditions in a waterbody — such as temperature or nutrient concentration — promote the uncontrolled growth of algae. The bigger the outbreak, the more likely that bacteria known as cyanobacteria will form. Cyanobacteria can produce toxins like microcystin, which attacks the liver and can be extremely dangerous if ingested.

Researchers are quickly trying to learn what causes some algae outbreaks to be extremely dangerous. We do know that rising water temperatures due to climate change and more nutrient pollution from farm fields, dairies and roads increase the potential for algae outbreaks, including those that are extremely dangerous to human and animal life.

Our Health and Local Economies Face Serious Risk

Outbreaks can consist of multiple types of algae and bacteria, each potentially causing different health issues. If ingested, some attack the liver and kidneys while others attack the nervous or digestive systems. Some can even cause death in as little as 15 minutes! They don’t have to be ingested to cause harm though. Swimming, wading or even walking by water infested with toxic algae can irritate the eyes, throat and skin.

This is not just a threat to public health. Outbreaks of toxic algae in water used for recreating — such as swimming, wading or fishing — can completely shut down local economies. A 2016 study estimates that impacts to our health and fisheries from harmful algae cost the United States over $50 million a year, and that number will grow as this problem worsens. Nearby communities that rely on this economic resource can experience significant financial hardship if a waterbody is closed due to toxic algae.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for identifying outbreaks of toxic algae, and the agency works with the seven public health districts throughout the state to issue advisories and notify the public of health concerns.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself and Your Animals

It’s difficult to tell whether an algae outbreak is toxic just by looking at it. It takes a specialized lab with microscopes to determine whether algae is toxic. So practice these tips to help protect you, your family and your animals:

  • Before visiting your favorite waters — lakes, streams, reservoirs or ponds — first check the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s harmful algae bloom webpage for toxic algae at your destination. DEQ updates this webpage frequently, so checking it is a great start to a trip. But it doesn’t guarantee your safety since new occurrences could have missed something or not yet reported.
  • When you’re out recreating, never drink untreated surface water — even if you don’t see algae nearby.
  • If you’re in contact with water and begin to feel irritation in your eyes, throat or nose, get away from the water and to a doctor as soon as you can.

We Must Take This Issue Seriously — How You Can Help

Toxic algae outbreaks are likely to plague our state’s waters well into the foreseeable future. The good news is that you can help clean up our rivers and lakes and protect human and animal health. DEQ has a limited number of staff working on this issue, which means they can’t be checking every waterbody all the time. Here’s how you can help:

It’s up to all of us to protect each other from toxic algae!