Harmful Blue-Green Algae Detected in Lake Washington

BREVARD COUNTY, FL - The Florida Department of Health in Brevard County has issued a Health Alert for the presence of harmful blue-green algal toxins at Lake Washington. This is in response to a water sample taken on February 20, 2023.

Lake Washington is the main source of drinking water for numerous cities and is part of the St. John's River, the largest river in Florida. Alage toxins haven't been found in drinking water as it is removed from the water at the treatment plant before reaching customers' faucets. The water from the lake, also known as surface water, is treated using the Actiflo process at the John A. Buckley Surface Water Treatment Plant. Chloramines are used as a disinfectant and are formed when ammonia is added to chlorine to treat drinking water. Read more about the harmful effects of chloramine at chloramine.org

Poor lake conditions are caused by nitrogen or phosphorus pollution from fertilizers, leaky septic and water systems, and land-applied sewage sludge. Pollution, combined with hot temperatures and stagnant water, fuels harmful algae growth.

Another source of pollution comes directly from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, as the agency contracts sprayers to keep waterways clear of invasive plants such as hydrilla. Glyphosate, 2,4-D, and diquat are a few control methods they use in Lake Washington. The chemicals are sprayed from airboats, helicopters, trucks, and backpacks. Some, like glyphosate, break down and release phosphorus into water bodies, causing plants to decompose and release nutrients that fuel algae growth and are absorbed through the foliage.

Residents may notice vibrant green streaks of slime near the banks where the toxin-producing algae linger and should refrain from fishing, swimming, or recreating on the lake. Blue-green algae is a form of bacteria called cyanobacteria. This bacteria is slow-moving or still in the water and can survive in various conditions.

Several species of cyanobacteria can produce a number of different toxins. Cyanotoxins can cause different adverse health effects on humans and animals. A person can be exposed by ingesting the toxins, eating a contaminated fish, and accidentally swallowing water while swimming, kayaking, or falling off a stand-up paddleboard.

Cyanotoxins can cause several side effects, including:
  • Skin irritation and/or allergic reason in eyes, ears, nose, throat
  • Headaches
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • abdominal pain
  • General malaise
People and animals that drink water containing toxins suffer acute side effects to their liver, kidney, and central nervous system.

Cyanobacteria and toxic algae can have devastating effects on aquatic ecosystems. Fish and frogs, for instance, can experience several serious side effects ranging from deformities to death. The algae deprive the water of oxygen and sunlight, and the rapid decomposition of the algae can produce high levels of ammonia.

St. Johns River Water Management District found traces (0.26 parts per billion) of a blue-green algal toxin called microcystin. These blooms typically begin during the hot and rainy summer months, but temperatures have been hotter than normal for this time of year.

Microcystin is a toxin produced by certain types of blue-green algae. The toxin is linked to short- and long-term health risks, such as liver disease and cancer.

Look for blue-green algae advisory signs. The Florida Department of Health posts advisories for toxic algae blooms by posting small signs next to the water body.

Blue-green algae blooms typically have a strong grassy or pungent smell and coat the surface of the water. The scum ranges in color from brown and blue to neon green. The entire surface of the water can be covered, or the algae can be concentrated in one location. Not all blooms are at the surface; if the water is murky or milky (you can't see your feed while standing knee-deep), that could be a bloom.

How to protect yourself, family, and pets from the effect of toxic algae:
  • Do not go in the water or have contact with the water.
  • Do not drink the water. 
    • Boiling water will not reduce the risk.
  • Do not let pets or livestock drink or have contact with the water.
  • Do not eat fish or other marine life caught in water with a blue-green algae bloom.
  • Contact your veterinarian if you think your pet may have become ill after drinking or coming into contact with blue-green algae-contaminated water.
  • The Florida Department of Environmental Protection collects and analyzes algal bloom samples. To report a bloom to DEP, call or report the toll-free hotline at 855-305-3903.
  • To Report fish kills, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute at 1-800-636-0511
How can your community help reduce blue-green algae blooms?
  • Eliminate/reduce chemical fertilizer use, especially near water.
  • Use phosphate-free soaps and cleaning products.
  • Ensure that septic tanks are working properly and not leaking into water sources.
  • If you suspect sewage is entering the waterway, contact a local authority.
  • Plant native plants, shrubs, and trees along shorelines to help prevent runoff
Additional Sources and Reading:
Support grassroots advocacy, freelance journalism, and independent science by donating to Fight for Zero, a nonprofit organization fighting for zero diseases by protecting natural resources. Visit fight4zero.org to learn more.

Stel Bailey

Stel Bailey, a cancer cluster survivor and environmental health advocate, is a researcher and journalist with more than two decades of multimedia experience, having been published globally.

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