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Algae toxins poison Toledo water supply

On Aug. 2, the city of Toledo, OH, and the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department issued an urgent warning to stop using city water to residents in the region connected to that supply. Testing at the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant has discovered a high level of microcystin in the drinking water. The contaminant is a toxin produced by a harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie.

Ohio National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are preparing to deploy to Lucas, Wood and Fulton counties to deliver water and food.
Ohio National Guard / public domain

The Toledo Blade, on Aug. 2, reported that about 500,000 people in northern Ohio and southern Michigan are at risk from the toxin. The ban includes drinking the water, using it for cooking, pets or in baby formula. The city warns that boiling the toxic water does not remove microcystin but may actually concentrate the poison.

Lake Erie is the source of drinking water for about 11 million people in the United States and Canada, the EPA reports. The two nations have been working for over 30 years to reduce excessive algal growth in the shallowest of the five Great Lakes. The primary cause for these blooms is phosphorus washing into the lake from farm use of fertilizers and manure accumulations on factory farms.

Microcystin is a toxin produced by the death of various species of cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The earlier testing revealed amounts over 1 microgram per liter which, the City of Toledo states, is its standard for "Do Not Drink". Additional testing is being performed but the results are not yet known.

The EPA notes that many common water treatment methods are unsuccessful in removing microcystin to make water potable. The Blade article states that Toledo spent $3 million last summer on additional chemicals to protect the city's water supply. It is not known when the water will be safe to drink.

The Ohio National Guard is trucking clean water into the affected communities. The American Red Cross of Northwest Ohio is operating water distribution sites and arranging for water deliveries to home-bound individuals. Many large grocery chins, including Korger and Walmart, have announced that their stores in the area will be receiving multiple additional shipments of bottled water.

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