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4 Years Since Toledo Water Crisis, Toxic Algal Blooms on Rise Across U.S

Contact: 
(202) 939-9141
For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
  • EWG Analysis Finds 169 Blooms Nationwide in 2017, a Sharp Increase from Previous Years
  • Lake Erie Bloom Made Toledo’s Water Unsafe to Drink for 3 Days in 2014

TOLEDO, Ohio – In 2014, Toledo was the first U.S. city where a toxic algal bloom made tap water unsafe to drink. But it may not be last, says a new report by the Environmental Working Group.

In recent years, as the blooms have become a recurring scourge in Lake Erie and some other Midwestern lakes and waterways, EWG also found a sharp increase in nationwide reports of toxic algal blooms.

No government entity tracks blooms nationwide, but EWG’s analysis of news coverage and satellite imagery found that, since 2010, nearly 300 blooms have been recorded in lakes, rivers and bays in 48 states. Our research found 169 toxic blooms reported in 40 states last year, compared to only three blooms in 2010.

Toxic algal blooms occur when chemical pollution from farms and other sources runs off into waterways, forming a thick, green, soup-like substance on the surface. The blooms are hazardous to human health and can even kill pets.

And they can make tap water unsafe to drink, as Toledo learned four years ago, when a massive bloom blanketed Lake Erie and invaded the city’s water supply, causing the city to issue a warning to residents not to drink their tap water, brush their teeth with or shower in it. The ban ultimately lasted three days.

“This problem has been ignored for far too long,” Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said. “The vast majority of nutrients feeding toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie comes from farm runoff from Ohio farms, and that must change. Cities like Toledo have dramatically slashed the release of algae-feeding phosphorus into waterways, but we need farmers to do the same.”

While algal blooms can happen naturally, in Lake Erie they are indisputably linked to pollution from farms. When fertilizer and animal manure run off into lakes, streams and bays, chemicals – including phosphorous – can spur the unchecked growth of cyanobacteria, particularly in warm weather.

Algal blooms can cause fish die-offs and harm other marine life, and they can devastate local economies by curbing tourism and recreational activities like swimming, fishing and boating. Blooms often reach their peak in the summer, but can also occur well into the fall and winter. In many places, they are forming earlier each year. Changing weather patterns associated with climate change exacerbate the issue.

What’s usually referred to as blue-green algae are actually photosynthetic organisms called cyanobacteria. But not all blooms are toxic.

They become dangerous when they create byproducts such as microcystin, the toxin that contaminated Toledo’s water. Short-term exposure to microcystins through skin contact, ingestion or inhalation can cause sore throat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and liver damage. Long-term exposure can lead to cancer, liver failure and sperm damage.

“Farmers are largely exempt from the Clean Water Act,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “And the rising number of blooms is directly related to the staggering intensification of crop and livestock production. Farmers get billions of taxpayer dollars each year through federal farm and insurance subsidies. It’s more than fair to ask them to take steps to prevent pollution in return for such generous support from their fellow citizens.”

Simple techniques like planting strips of grass next to streams and applying fertilizer using precision methods can cut water pollution from farms.

The EWG report includes an interactive map of 288 of blooms nationwide, as well as before-and-after satellite photos of 24 blighted lakes in 12 states and a short video about the now–annual Lake Erie bloom. Lake Erie isn’t the only place with a reliable yearly bloom – in recent years federal regulators began issuing an annual “bloom forecast” for some coastal states and plan to expand the program.

At two hearings last month, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt was repeatedly asked by lawmakers from Ohio about the EPA’s plans to combat algal blooms under its authority from the Clean Water Act.

“Voluntary programs alone aren’t getting the job done. It is far past time to expect landowners to meet basic standards of caring for their land and our water,” Cox said.

MULTIMEDIA RESOURCES AVAILABLE

Please visit www.ewg.org/toxicalgalblooms for the report, including an interactive map, video and photos.

High-resolution before-and-after photos of 24 blooms in 12 states can be found at www.ewg.org/toxicalgalbloomspresskit.