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.

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.

Open Science and Cyanobacterial Research at EPA

By: Jeff Hollister, Betty Kreakie, and Bryan Milstead

Green, algal-filled pond

Algal bloom containing cyanobacteria.

It wasn’t long ago that science always occurred along a well-worn path. Observations led to hypotheses; hypotheses led to data collection; data led to analyses; and analyses led to publications. And along this path, data, hypotheses, and analyses were held close and, more often than not, the only public-facing view of the research was the final publication.

Science has come a long way with this model.  However, it was conceived when print was the main media and most scientific questions could be investigated by few scientists over a short period of time.

Then came computers. Then came the internet.

Just like in every other aspect of modern life, these advances are greatly impacting science. It has changed who conducts our science, how we share it, and how others interact with scientific information. All of these changes are playing out through the increasing openness of all parts of the scientific process.

This broad area has been defined as having several components. These components suggest that “open science”:

  • is transparent (and, of course, open)
  • includes all parts of research (data, code, etc.)
  • allows others to repeat the work
  • should be posted on an open and accessible website (while protecting Personally Identifiable Information, etc.)
  • occurs along a gradient (i.e. not just a binary open vs. not open)

At EPA, we are learning how to make our research on cyanobacteria and human health (for more info join our webinar) meet those criteria.  We are implementing open science in three ways: (1) making our work available via open access publishing; (2) providing access to the code used in our analysis; and (3) making our data openly available.

Several members of our research group have embraced open access options for publishing their research. For instance, our colleague Elizabeth Hilborn and her co-authors published results of their study—examining a group of dialysis patients following exposure to the cyanobacteria toxin microcystin—in one of the pioneering open access journals, PLoS ONE. Also in PLoS ONE, EPA scientist Bryan Milstead and his collaborators published a modeling method to combine the U.S. Geological Survey’s SPARROW model (a modeling tool for interpreting regional water-quality monitoring data), lake depth, lake volume, and EPA National Lakes Assessment data to estimate nutrient concentrations.

As our work progresses, we will continue to choose open access journals. In our experience, this has allowed our research to reach a larger audience and we can more easily track the impact through readership levels using available tools such as PLoS Article Level Metrics.

We are also sharing our data. Currently, this is accomplished through supplements added to publications and through sites such as the EPA’s Environmental Dataset Gateway. We plan to expand these efforts via data publications, version-controlled repositories, and through the development of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that provide access to data for developers and other scientists.

The goal of these efforts, and more (stay tuned for a future post on how coding fits in to open science), is to increase the reproducibility of our work (but challenges remain), reach broader audiences, and eventually have a greater impact on our understanding and management of harmful algal blooms.

About the Authors: EPA ecologists Jeff Hollister, Betty Kreakie and Bryan Milstead study greenwater for a living. If you have questions for them, join the webinar on June 25th or follow the twitter chat on June 26th using #greenwater.

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.