Special Report: Something In The Water
Special Report (WENY)-- Harmful Algal Blooms are becoming more prevalent in the Finger Lakes, and officials are trying to figure out why. Officials say if you're out around the Finger Lakes see a Harmful Algal Bloom, you need to stay away. But what is a Harmful Algal Bloom, and what makes it so dangerous?
A Harmful Algal Bloom, or HAB, is the collection of bacteria that produces a toxin, and gathers on the surface of lakes. Not all algal blooms are harmful, but it's impossible to tell the difference just by looking at them. HABs have to be chemically analyzed to see if there are toxins in them.
"The harmful algal blooms are the ones that have significant levels of a toxin, often antitoxin or microcystin," says Dr. Lewis McCaffrey, a Senior Research Scientist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Algal Blooms can be difficult to identify because it may look like small floating plants or weeds. McCaffrey says an algal bloom will have the following characteristics.
"So you can tell an algal bloom is in the water if it looks like green paint, spilled green paint, or pea soup," McCaffrey explains.
Algal blooms are caused by a number of different factors, including high nutrients, warm temperatures, and calm weather. Officials say if you see an algal bloom, the best thing to do is stay away, and alert the NYSDEC.
"We're very happy to have alerts from members of the public if they do see what they think is an algal bloom. They can go onto the DEC Website and either email us, and we're also very happy to receive photographs of suspected algal blooms," says McCaffrey.
What happens when you come in contact with, or ingest, a Harmful Algal Bloom? Dr. Rodrigo Samodal is a Family Medicine Physician with the Guthrie Clinic. He coming in contact with a Harmful Algal Bloom can have dangerous consequences on your body.
"Either in your skin, respiratory system, or GI tract. Those are the entry points to the body. Or in your ears as well, we get a lot of those swimmers ears, and they can actually come in because of swimming in poor quality or dirty water," explains Dr. Samodal.
If a Harmful Algal Bloom is ingested, the body will show symptoms if nausea, vomiting, stomach aches, and/or diarrhea. These symptoms can last one day or a few days, but the best thing to do is wait it out and drink plenty of fluids. Harmful Algal Blooms can also cause serious rashes on your skin.
"Some of those rashes will be either pruritic, which is very itchy. It can be painful or irritating," says Dr. Samodal.
The irritation and rashes can be treated with many over-the-counter ointments, creams, or lotions. Doctors recommend seeking medical treatment as soon as possible after coming in contact with a suspected algal bloom.
"First of all, they should rinse off a lot of the toxins from their body, and get to a doctor so they can be evaluated," Dr. Samodal says.
Dr. Samodal also says the healthier you are, the better you'll be able to fight the symptoms.
"I think if we're talking about staying healthy, and keeping your nutrition, and making sure you're immunized, I think you'd have a better chance of fending off the toxins," Dr. Samodal explains.
What are elected officials doing to combat Harmful Algal Blooms? New York State Senator Tom O'Mara (R, NY -58th District) is the chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee in the Senate. He says $65 million in this year's budget has been set aside for pilot programs to deal with Harmful Algal Blooms. The pilot programs will look at the causes, and what can be done to reduce it. Senator O'Mara says one potential problem area is runoff from local farms.
"A lot of that around the Finger Lakes, we have steep slopes going into the lakes, a lot of farmland, a lot of runoff from tilled soil as well as the fertilizers and pesticides that go onto those farmer's fields," explains Senator O'Mara.
The DEC is studying 12 different lakes across the state, including Cayuga Lake, to see what can be done to combat the problem. Senator O'Mara is happy to see the state is making this issue a priority.
"I think we're on the right track, I think we've got the right attention of focus at the state level. I'm hopeful we'll be able to come up with some good ideas out of these pilot programs that the Department is working on right now," Senator O'Mara says.
While the state investigates Harmful Algal Blooms, officials saw awareness of the problem is extremely important.
"People are worried about them, rightly so, and so I think it's good people are understanding more about them," McCaffrey says. "People need to be able to identify what is a bloom, and if they see a bloom they should stay away from the water. So the more people understand and recognize blooms, the better for the public's health," he adds.
If you do come upon an algal bloom this summer, just remember these things: stay away and do not go into the water, take a picture if you can do so safely, and alert the NYSDEC. The following link brings you to a suspicious algae bloom report form: https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/water_pdf/suspalgformedit.pdf
For more information about Harmful Algal Blooms, click on this link: https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/77118.html