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New York’s Toxic Algae Blooms

ESF Leads New Study


SYRACUSE, N.Y. — In the northeastern United States, August brings ripe corn, shorter days and blue-green algae blooms toxic enough to kill humans.

The lakes in New York state are no exception.

Two and three summers ago, several dogs died within an hour of being exposed to a toxic bloom on Lake Champlain. "Within 60 minutes of exposure, a 60-pound Labrador retriever was flat-out dead. This stuff can be very toxic," said Dr. Gregory L. Boyer, an ESF chemist. Tests show the toxins remain present in several lakes in New York.

Researchers are now trying to determine how widespread the problem is, and the best ways to deal with it. The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) is leading a $3 million, 5-year study to determine the best way to detect — and respond to — toxic algae blooms.

The college is the lead partner in a project funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which considers the blooms a national problem.

Tracking the blooms presents a major difficulty. By the time the toxin had been identified in the dogs that died in 1999, 10 days had passed. Boyer describes that period as "an astronomical time in bloom chasing" because of the vagaries of water currents and shifting winds.

Boyer, a biochemist, is ESF’s principal investigator on the project. He was among the researchers who went into high gear in 1999 in an effort to determine if the problem was unique to Lake Champlain. The college worked with New York Sea Grant to evaluate the extent of toxic blue-green algae throughout the state. Researchers tested more than 130 lakes in the central lakes region, the St. Lawrence River area, as well as the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain, and found 20 percent of them had some indication of potentially toxic blooms. In lakes that had experienced trouble with blue-green algae in the past, the potential for future trouble jumped to 50 percent.

"We found that, yes, toxic blue-green algae is present in New York State," Boyer said.

Some of the findings might surprise the average New Yorker. It is often assumed that the easily identifiable algae called microcystis produces the toxin known as microcystin. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Consider Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, which is often described as the most polluted lake in the United States. It is frequently the site of massive microcystis outbreaks, particularly in August, when motorists zipping past on Interstate 690 can see masses of greenish algae floating on the water’s surface. But there is virtually no evidence of toxic microcystin in the lake. Researchers will be dipping into the lake this month, collecting samples in the hopes of determining if the algae has the gene necessary to produce the toxin.

By contrast, Oneida Lake, the largest lake within the state’s borders at nearly 80 square miles and a hub for summer recreation, shows little evidence of algae. In many samples, however, the microcystin level far exceeds acceptable limits set by the World Health Organization.

"Onondaga Lake is a classic example," Boyer said. "It has a horrible blue-green algae problem, but it’s not toxic. It’s a horrible lake in terms of water quality but it’s not toxic. By contrast, Oneida Lake is one of the most toxic lakes in New York in terms of blue-green algae."

Boyer said testing showed microcystin levels were also unacceptably high in several of the state’s lakes, including Nehatawanta in Fulton and Crellin Pond in Columbia County.

The college responded to those findings by establishing an analytical lab that takes up one quarter of the third floor in the Edwin C. Jahn Laboratory building. It is one of only two labs in North America that can do wide-ranging, complex analysis of blue-green algae, which can produce five types of toxins that involve 100 chemical compounds.

The next step, concentrating on lakes Ontario, Erie and Champlain, is to develop new analytical techniques for early detection of, and response to toxic algae blooms. The findings will result in guidelines for water treatments plants and state conservation departments that are charged with monitoring toxic algae blooms and treating the water to prevent harmful effects on human consumers. Boyer recently returned from 10 days of sampling in Lake Erie and was scheduled to begin working at Lake Champlain.

"You want to detect these things before you get a dead dog or a sick child," Boyer said. Toxic blue-green algae can cause respiratory failure in humans. Over the long term, it can cause liver damage and cancer.

Researchers will also investigate questions about whether certain algae have a gene to produce toxins; whether bays on Lake Ontario serve as incubators for toxic algae; how drinking water treatment plants, particularly the many that draw water from Lake Champlain, can detect toxic outbreaks; and how to educate the public about the threat.

Boyer is working at ESF with Dr. Paul Hopkins of ESF’s Faculty of Environmental Resources and Forest Engineering, who is developing a way to use satellite images and remote sensing in the early detection of toxic blooms. Hopkins hopes to use a combination of images derived from satellites and aircraft to detect changes in the lakes’ appearance.

"We hope to be able to track them," Hopkins said. "The idea is to have a more complete picture of when and where these blooms might occur, and how much we’ll have to deal with."

"Right now, the only way to find toxic algae blooms is rather labor intensive," Boyer said. "You have to go out in a boat and look for them."

His goal is to find ways to take the analytical techniques out of the laboratory and put them on a boat, or directly into the water in the form of buoys and sensors. "If you’re really going to do this, you need to have almost instantaneous water testing."

Also involved in the project are researchers from the University of Tennessee, the SUNY College at Brockport, the University of Vermont and the New York Sea Grant extension specialist based at Cornell University.

Additional information:
Claire B. Dunn
ESF News and Publications