toxins

Keeping Pets—and People—Safe from Toxic Algae

Visible green slime in Lake Needwood during harmful algal bloom outbreak in September 2012.

By Patty Scott

Two years ago, our family planned to take our Yellow Labrador puppy Fiona to Lake Needwood near our home in Rockville, Maryland for a swim. Our puppy needed somewhere to exercise and the scenic lake near Rock Creek Park seemed like the perfect place. My husband, however, mentioned something about a warning for a harmful algal bloom. At the time, I had just started working on EPA’s National Lakes Assessment, the agency’s report card on the condition of the nation’s lakes, and thankfully knew about the dangers of harmful algal blooms. Blue-green algae can produce harmful toxins that can be fatal if ingested. Since people are not allowed to swim in Lake Needwood, the dangers are not as great for humans. However, dogs are especially at risk if they swim in or drink the water. We decided against taking Fiona anywhere near the lake.

While Montgomery County did not know the cause of the outbreaks in Lake Needwood, harmful algal blooms are often triggered by excessive levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. Many of our lakes, rivers, streams and bays are becoming overloaded with nutrients from a wide range of sources. Excess nutrients spur the growth of algae to the point where they can explode into vast — and sometimes toxic — colonies of slime. Algal blooms often peak during the summer months, but in some parts of the country they occur year round.

Nutrient pollution is a growing concern because it threatens public health, recreation and our economy. National data is not easy to find on impacts to our four-legged friends, but sadly dog deaths have been reported due to harmful algae.

Warning sign advising residents and their pets to avoid direct contact with the water at Lake Needwood in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Like many pet owners, we treat Fiona and Jake, our other lab, like part of our family, and we’d be devastated to lose them. It’s best to keep pets away from the water anytime there is visible surface scum, if the water is discolored or if there is a strong musty smell. Also, keep in mind that not all waters are monitored. You can check EPA’s new How’s My Waterway app to find out about the condition of your local waterway and whether it’s been tested.

Everyone can help make a difference. One easy way to combat algae is to take care not to over-fertilize. And always remember to pick up pet waste. To learn more about how you can prevent nutrient pollution, visit

About the author: Patty Scott works in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds on communications and outreach.  She loves fishing, kayaking, cycling and other outdoor pursuits.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Lead in Lipstick

By Marcia Anderson

For us ladies, we may not think twice when putting on our favorite lipstick or getting a hair-straightening treatment to fight the frizziness, but exactly how safe are these beauty products? Truth is, these products may contain toxins such as formaldehyde (found in hair-straightening treatments) and heavy metals (such as arsenic and lead in lipstick) that are harmful to your health.

Lead is in lipstick either because the raw materials are contaminated with lead, or the pigment contains lead. Lead in lipstick is not new. In the 1990s, reports of analytical results from a commercial testing laboratory suggested that traces of lead in lipstick might be of concern. You could be paying a high and harmful price to get those ruby red lips each day.

A study completed by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) in 2007 reported finding lead in most brands of lipsticks.  The amounts found in some brands are of concern. FDA scientists found lead in all of the 20 lipsticks they tested. Lead levels ranged from 0.09 ppm to 7.9 pm.

Some people may think, “how much harm can something that’s just going on my lips really cause?“ Lead-containing lipstick applied several times a day, every day, can add up to significant exposure levels over time. Women swallow somewhere between three and nine pounds of lipstick over the course of their lifetime.

Unfortunately, on packages you will not see lead listed in its ingredients, but there are lists and other tips out there that can help when trying to find a safe shade to compliment your lips.  Stay away from products that say they are “not easy removable” or “longer lasting”. These lipsticks are not easy to “remove” because they contain more lead.

Don’t be overly concerned, however. There are a number of lipstick brands that have been tested and are found to be lead free. You can get plenty of information on these brands on the internet. And, here, in the New York Metropolitan area, you can find many of those brands at the corner drugstore.

Years ago, you could play with your mom’s makeup without her thinking they could be harmful. We now know that mom should exercise caution with her cosmetics. Our bodies store lead and having more lead in your system puts you at a greater risk of cancer and other health problems.  Remember, there is no safe lead level.

You may also want to look at your other cosmetics. The average woman applies 168 different chemicals to her face every single day. The average man applies only 85. But of the thousands of chemicals in today’s personal care products, only 11% have been tested for safety. What other toxic chemicals might be lurking in your cosmetics?

Concerned about lead in your environment? Go to www.epa.gov/lead , or call 311 in New York City or  the National lead hotline: 1-800-424-LEAD (5323).

About the author: Marcia is the bed bug and vector management specialist for the Pesticides Program in Edison. She has a BS in Biology from Monmouth, second degree in Environmental Design-Landscape Architecture from Rutgers, Masters in Instruction and Curriculum from Kean, and is a PhD in Environmental Management candidate from Montclair – specializing in Integrated Pest Management and Environmental Communications. Prior to EPA, and concurrently, she has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology and Oceanography at Kean University for 14 years.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Communication Challenges 1: Harmful Algal Blooms

By Jessica Werber

At EPA, there is a lot of discussion about connecting the dots. How do you help people go from A to B to a desired conclusion? When it comes to communicating the importance of harmful algal blooms, helping the public make connections between the health of their water bodies and their own health is a formidable challenge.

Algal blooms are confusing because they are simply the result of “too much of a good thing.” A little bit of algae is actually good for a water body, but too much becomes harmful.

Let’s say a landowner applies excess fertilizer on his or her land, or applies it at the wrong time. Then it rains and nitrogen in the fertilizer trickles into a nearby stream. That stream also receives nitrogen from stormwater, wastewater, and other sources like pet waste, and it becomes saturated. Algae feeding on the nitrogen proliferate, blocking the sunlight, depleting oxygen in the water, causing bacteria and…Well, the visual result is green goop, or surface scum on the water, which is pretty common in many states around America:

After the algal bloom subsides, the waterbody may still be overloaded with nitrogen. Certain types of algae, such as blue-green algae, create toxins that can make people and animals sick. When popular lakes and ponds are covered with scum, the local economy loses out because tourists will be unable to play or fish in the water.

The reality is that most people don’t think about water pollution in their everyday lives. Do I think that people care about their water? Yes, but they do so in different ways. Some care because they place an inherent value in the natural world. Others care because they have a vested interest; their child or pet is getting sick or their business is affected by the pollution. To successfully explain why harmful algal blooms are so detrimental, it is increasingly important for EPA to investigate the motivations behind why certain people care, to adapt our messaging and outreach efforts accordingly, and to clearly connect the dots in our own minds before we reach out to the public.

EPA’s new nutrient pollution website contains local stories about nutrient pollution and suggested actions you can take. So tell me…why do you care about harmful algal blooms and what can you do to make a difference?

About the author: Jessica Werber is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Participant in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. She is also a licensed attorney. This post does not represent the views of the EPA or Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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