EPA Science In Action: Keeping an Eye on Harmful Algal Blooms

By Cindy Sonich-Mullin

A half million people living in and around Toledo, Ohio recently experienced a weekend without tap water. A “harmful algal bloom” of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie, Toledo’s water source, produced unsafe levels of the toxin microcystin. The toxin is known to cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and at high exposure levels, liver damage.

A water advisory was issued alerting residents to avoid all contact with Toledo drinking water.

At the first sign of trouble, colleagues at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency contacted my laboratory to provide technical assistance and water sample analysis to support the City of Toledo’s drinking water utility.

We were a natural choice to help out. Not only is EPA’s Cincinnati-based laboratory facility relatively close geographically, but our scientific staff includes a team of leading experts with analytical capabilities in drinking water treatment and cyanobacterial toxins.

Throughout the weekend, we performed tests and conducted sensitive analyses to help identify the optimal approach for controlling the toxins in Toledo’s water plant and distribution system. We shared our test results with our partners from Ohio EPA, who interpreted them along with their own results and others from the City of Toledo.

We were all greatly relieved the morning of August 6th, when the City of Toledo determined that they could lift the water advisory.

At the time, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler released the following statement: “After exhaustive testing, analysis and discussions between Toledo water officials, the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA, we support the city’s decision to lift its drinking water advisory. Throughout the difficulty of the past few days everyone involved has demonstrated the utmost professionalism and commitment to solving this problem. The mayor and his team, U.S. EPA and the other scientific and academic leaders who lent us their expertise worked in a constructive way to turn the water back on for the people of Toledo.”

While many weekend plans were cancelled due to the crisis in Toledo, we were honored to be called on to help our sister city to the north. As scientists, it is gratifying to use our expertise and the tools we develop to provide solutions to communities. Of course, what would be even better than lending our expertise and rapid response and analysis capabilities would be to help prevent harmful algal blooms from threatening drinking water supplies in the first place. And that is just what we are doing. In fact, we’ve shared some of our harmful algal bloom research recently here on our blog. Below are some recent posts with more information on that work.

As the above blogs exemplify, EPA researchers are working hard to better understand the dynamics of harmful algal blooms. EPA is also working with other agencies to accelerate the development and deployment of affordable sensors that will help predict future algal blooms. This means we will be even better poised to work with cities like Toledo and other local communities to better protect precious drinking water supplies. Keep an eye here on “It All Starts with Science” to see future posts about that work, and more.

About the Author: Cindy Sonich-Mullin is the Director of EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio. She has over 30 years of experience in EPA, leading research and response efforts on a wide variety of environmental issues.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

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Monitoring Harmful Algal Blooms? There’s an App for That!

By Annie Zwerneman

Algal bloom covers a lake.

Algal bloom covers a lake.

I was recently on my favorite hiking trail, which passes by a beautiful lake. But this time hiking past it, I noticed a strange, dark scum creeping along the shoreline of the water. I learned later that this scum was actually an algal bloom: a population of algae increasing quickly over a short period of time.

Some algal blooms are merely an eyesore, but others fall into a more serious category called “harmful algal blooms” (HABs): algae and cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue-green algae) that remove oxygen from the water, crowding their way along the surface and producing toxins that are harmful to animals. The toxins that HABs produce can affect peoples’ health, too.

EPA has been working to monitor HABs, including taking water samples to see where and how algal blooms may affect you. Unfortunately, taking such water samples is time-intensive, so EPA has been working alongside scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to find new ways to monitor the quality of inland water bodies, such as lakes and reservoirs. EPA hopes to monitor estuaries and coastal waters in the future as well.

A new Android app is being developed that displays imagery of cyanobacterial cell counts in freshwater systems, which can indicate the presence of HABs. Expected to be in beta testing this fall, the app will provide information necessary for locating and monitoring HABs. It’s primarily aimed toward stakeholders like health departments and municipalities (such as water treatment plants).

The app will display data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite. In the near future, EPA researchers hope to incorporate the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-3 and potentially the Landsat-8 satellite as well. They will work with their NOAA, USGS, and NASA partners to pull all these capabilities together once the app is ready for public use.

The way the app will work is a bit like the weather station. At the beginning of each week, the cell count will be updated based on the satellite information gathered the previous week. There may even be a prediction of the cell count for the upcoming week available. For example, you can get a cell count in Lake Erie for the current week, and then get a prediction of what the cell count may be next week.

Thanks to the collaborative effort of multiple federal agencies, those looking for information about freshwater quality and HABs won’t have to look far: there will be an app for that!

About the Author: Annie Zwerneman is a 2014 summer intern working for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.