I met up with Aaron Parker, an aquatic biologist for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), formerly the Department of Environmental Quality or DEQ, last weekend. We had a short discussion about harmful algae, which has been in the news lately. Specifically, we talked about cyanobacteria, but most people know it more as toxic blue-green algae (even though it is not algae). Under certain conditions, some types of cyanobacteria can produce toxins that are harmful to people and animals. Not all blue-green algae are toxic, but it is not possible to tell by looking. Tests are done to determine this, but Aaron says even if is there is blue-green algae that does not test as toxic, to stay away, as that could change.
Learn More About Algae Online
What causes these harmful algae blooms? They happen from summer into fall, when our lakes are warm. The blooms form when the lakes are calm – winds usually disperse them. The essential ingredient is nutrients -- phosphorus and nitrogen from lawns, stormwater or agricultural runoff, and sewage from septic tanks or treatment plants. (Note to lakefront property owners: green lawns to the lake’s edge help to promote algae growth; sometimes these harmful types.) Invasive species, such as zebra and quagga mussels have made the lakes even more susceptible to the harmful algae. The blooms can last for days or even a few months. There are a number of different types of algae in our lakes, but blue-green algae stand out – the blooms look like oil or paint slicks across the top of the water.
Exposure to the toxic blooms can cause skin rashes or breathing problems. Swallowing lots of water, like kids do, could cause flu-like illnesses or even harm a person’s nervous system. Breathing in toxics from water spray – while on a boat or jet ski -- can cause skin and throat irritation. A big concern is for animals, such as dogs, as they can drink lots of water while swimming and playing. The best plan of action is to keep dogs away from and out of water if harmful algae are suspected, and also, if the presence of toxins is confirmed.
If you suspect there are harmful algae blooms in a lake by you, the best advice is: “When in doubt, stay out!”
People can email photos to EGLE, if they suspect the harmful is present in their lake. Watch the video for the email address and other information, and see more at EGLE’s page on harmful algae blooms, or click on their logo above to visit their website.
Note to White Lake area folks: if you think Aaron looks familiar, it may be because you know his father, Dan Parker, a longtime Montague native and environmentally minded resident. Protecting the environment runs in the family!