A new variety of algae bloom has been identified in a region of Lake Erie near Cleveland, according to Ohio State University researchers.
The findings are significant not only because they confirm algae blooms are more widespread than previously known, but also because this new variation could create a toxin that is hard for some public water-treatment plants to detect.
"The main takeaway is that cyanobacteria blooms are not just a western-basin issue," said Justin Chaffin, a senior researcher at Ohio State's Stone Laboratory and the lead author on the study published Thursday.
Cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, is regularly found each summer near Toledo in Lake Erie's western basin. The Ohio State study confirms reports of harmful algae blooms in the lake's central basin, which begins near Sandusky and stretches east past Cleveland to Erie, Pennsylvania.
In addition, Chaffin said the algae blooms discovered in the central basin are of a different variety than those in the Toledo area, indicating they didn't just drift eastward from the western basin.
This new variety still poses an environmental and social risk, Chaffin said, and presents a challenge for water-treatment plants.
Most water-treatment plants lack the equipment to accurately measure the toxin that central-basin algae blooms can create, Chaffin said. But he stressed that the standard screening process should be able to remove it, and that all of the water plants screen for a particular gene found in central-basin algae blooms.
One concern, he said, is that water plants are only required to screen every two weeks for that particular gene, but these algae blooms are short-lived: between one to three weeks. As a result, "they might miss it," he said.
"There is a potential for the risk, but the risk isn’t every day, every summer," Chaffin added.
James Lee, spokesman for the Ohio EPA, said any time a facility finds a blue-green algae gene, the agency conducts tests for toxins. Water quality is also tested using satellite imaging and other indicators, such as pH levels, he said.
Peter Bucher, water resources director for the Ohio Environmental Council, said the study is a reminder that "there’s certainly a lot of modern problems that are very real" threats to Lake Erie.
Harmful algae blooms are overgrowths of the algae that people are used to seeing on lakes and ponds. The blue-green algae becomes toxic when it feeds off of phosphorous released from fertilizers and farm manure that get washed into the lake by stormwater runoff.
The algae can create liver and nerve toxins that endanger wildlife, pets and people. The western-basin blooms create toxins that are harmful to the liver and kidneys. The central-basin toxins pose a threat to the brain and spinal cord.
The toxins do not always seriously develop, though.
Chaffin compared the algae blooms to a furnace, and the toxins to heat. If the furnace is cranked up, it will produce more heat. Similarly, he said, if the right environmental conditions occur, the blooms "have the ability to really crank up toxin production."
The question, Chaffin said, is whether the central-basin algae blooms develop to the point where the toxin is produced, and if so, what factors are responsible for it.