Toxic algae in Toledo’s drinking water becomes dangerous

Lake Erie's water intake crib, known historically as the "Fortress in the Lake," was an engineering feat first recognized in 1941, according to the Toledo Blade. The project cost the city only $9.88 million and took four years to build. The crib intake system was originally designed to work for 60 years. However, it is still being used today to supply Toledo with water.

Initially the location in Lake Erie was chosen because of the flow of water from the Detroit River, which also provided freshwater from Lake Huron. "It was ingenious how that intake was built," Tom Kovacik, a utilities director who worked for the city of Toledo, said in the Blade. "The water is all fed by gravity, there is no suction."

"Back in the 1940s, city officials knew the algae in the lake was a problem."

In 1945, the Blade interviewed water commissioner George Van Dorp, who told the residents of Toledo the "evil smell or taste" in the tap water was from algae and it wasn't a health issue. Back in the 1940s, city officials knew that the algae in the lake was a problem. However, the algae was not considered to be a health risk to the public. Van Dorp continued to state that cleaning up the algae blooms was too costly for the city and the "condition" was prevalent only in the spring.

The water quality in Toledo today
Toledo received the all clear on October 16, 2015, after tests for the dangerous microcystin toxin came back at 0.098 parts per billion (ppb), according to the Blade. This value had been consistently decreasing since August 2014 when there was a high concentration of algae toxin at the opening of the intake crib. City officials in Toledo determined the water was undrinkable and unsafe for the public.

This past summer, Toledo moved its water quality status to "watch" because the microcystin toxin measured at 0.5 ppb. Since then the levels have fluctuated, getting as high as 0.49 ppb on August 12, 2015. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it is acceptable for any person above the age of 6 to have up to 1.6 ppb of microcystin in their water. Children under the age of 6, nursing or pregnant women, people with liver conditions and people on dialysis should not drink water with more than 0.3 ppb microcystin.

Effects of microcystin on the body
Health Advisories can be published by the EPA under the Safe Water Drinking Act. Health Advisories provide the general public with information about the chemical and physical properties of the toxin as well as the effects of overexposure, occurrence, and the overall health effects. Health Advisories are not considered regulations and cannot be used in legal cases. However, they are used by state and federal officials to manage public and private water supplies.

Toxic algae is an ongoing problem across the Great Lakes. Toxic algae is an ongoing problem across the Great Lakes.

According to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in California, microcystin can cause skin irritation, rashes or burns if people come in contact with the algae when swimming. It can also cause skin blisters, specifically around the mouth. Inhalation and ingestion of the toxin while swimming can cause vomiting, nausea, headaches, diarrhea, pneumonia and fever. Significant ingestion, which mainly affects children and animals, can cause liver damage and dysfunction. No human deaths have been recorded due to microcystin. However, dogs, wildlife and other livestock have died from exposure to this toxin.

The future
Algae blooms are very dangerous and becoming more of a problem to our ecosystems than they have ever been before. Algae blooms typically develop in the early spring and increase in size through the summer because of the warming water. However, the increase in water temperatures due to global warming has made the algae blooms grow bigger and last longer than they have in the past. The quality of drinking water has become a problem everywhere. It is now the responsibility of the local governments to use water quality consultants to monitor the toxicity, salinity, temperature and other qualities of water for both residents and wildlife.