Environmental Bulletin

Harmful Algal Blooms Sweeping the Nation

Algal Bloom off the coast of Florida
A Harmful Algal Bloom in Lake Okeechobee, FL. Image courtesy of USGS

Harmful Algal Blooms, also known as “HABs,” are making the headlines across the nation, and their increased presence and regularity cannot be ignored. HABs are any rapid growth of algae that can cause harm to the people, the environment, or animals. The algae, which bloom due to environmental factors such as warmer temperatures and high nutrient availability, can harm or kill organisms, or make them toxic to animals higher up in the food chain. They occur in both fresh water and marine settings, and although there are differences in specific types of algae in varying settings, the results can be similarly catastrophic.

Occurrences of Harmful Algal Blooms across the United States. Published by USGS

Along with their proliferation comes awareness of their societal impacts. Economic losses due to infections at fisheries, food insecurities due to shellfish harvest contamination, beach closures and the ensuing loss of tourism revenues, are affecting communities where HABs have emerged. The blooms cause hypoxia (oxygen depletion) in the host water body, which kills fish and other organisms. This has a ripple effect up the food chain and throughout the habitat. Red Tide, a commonly known HAB, can result in toxic shellfish poisoning. When humans consume infected shellfish, symptoms can range from slight to extreme gastrointestinal or neurological distress. A HAB outbreak that lasted more than a year in Florida caused respiratory distress and eye irritation, as the algae dried up and became airborne around beaches and waterways. In a state whose economy relies so heavily on tourism, beach closures have a financial impact that cannot be ignored. Many Ohio residents found themselves without drinking water in 2014 after a bloom in Lake Erie.

Harmful Algal Blooms exist across a spectrum of settings, from inland freshwater bodies to coastal margins.

Even our pets are feeling the impact. From California to New York, dogs have been getting sick, or worse, dying, from contact with or ingestion of poisonous cyanobacteria associated with HABs in their local ponds. The toxic cyanobacteria can be ingested when dogs play in the water, drink from infected ponds, or eat dried pond scum. Our environment, livelihoods,

The drivers of these HABs are nutrient overloading and higher temperatures. Most algae thrive in warmer temperatures, so warming air and water temperatures in recent decades has been exacerbating the propagation of blooms. Algae also need nutrients, and increased human activity around bodies of water or near the coast drives nutrient pollution through agriculture, fertilizer use, and the abundance of poorly performing septic systems. Nitrogen and phosphorous find their way into water systems via runoff or groundwater infiltration and feed the algae. Some of the triggers of HABs are beyond our immediate control, but it is important to take what steps we can to protect our environment, our resources, and our loved ones.

Managing our impact can seem daunting, but with minor adjustments to our everyday routines, we can make a tangible difference in our world starting right in your backyard. Reducing fertilizer use in your yard and treating your wastewater properly are easy choices to make. If you have a septic system, upgrade to LooLoop®! SOSystems’ LooLoop® utilizes natural processes to break down wastewater, reducing pollutants, including nitrogen, by up to 95%. It is easy to install as a retrofit to your existing system, and it is a great choice when building on your property. Partner with the pioneer in onsite wastewater treatment to protect what matters most!

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