A blue-green algal bloom is pictured in West Bloomfield Township in 2019. It did test positive for cyanobacteria — blue-green algae — but it tested negative for the toxins that bacteria produces.

A blue-green algal bloom is pictured in West Bloomfield Township in 2019. It did test positive for cyanobacteria — blue-green algae — but it tested negative for the toxins that bacteria produces.

File photo by Donna Agusti

Residents living near water advised on how to spot potential toxins

By: Mark Vest | Metro | Published August 6, 2021


METRO DETROIT — The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recently sent out a press release advising people living near or visiting Michigan waters in the summer or fall to be aware of the potential for harmful algal blooms, or HABs.

HABs form due to a rapid overgrowth or bloom of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae.

According to the release, cyanobacteria is naturally present in lakes, rivers and ponds, and it can produce toxins that could be present in cyanobacterial blooms, which — at higher levels — have the potential to be harmful to people and animals.

HABs typically occur in Michigan from May through October, most commonly in August and September.

In 2020, 61 HABs in 35 Michigan counties were reported to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

“Before going in the water, we recommend Michiganders look for visible algal blooms or scums on any lake, and that people and pets stay out of water in areas that look affected,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Chief Medical Executive and Chief Deputy Joneigh Khaldun stated in the release. “If you may have had contact with or swallowed water with a HAB and feel sick, call your doctor or Poison Control at (800) 222-1222. If symptoms are severe, seek emergency medical attention as soon as possible.”

HABs can look like algal scums or mats, spilled paint, pea soup, or colored streaks on the water’s surface.

Blooms can last for days or even weeks and change in size, toxicity and location within the same day. They also may disappear from a body of water and reform at a later time.

To see examples of what HABs look like, visit michigan.gov/egle and type in a search for “Michigan harmful algal bloom picture guide.”

If there is a suspicion of HABs, it is recommended that people, pets and livestock do not go in the water or near the shore in affected areas.

Other suggestions include rinsing off both people and pets after contact with any lake water and following the instructions of any posted HAB advisory or closing.

Suspected HABs can be reported by sending an email to AlgaeBloom@Michigan.gov or calling (800) 662-9278.

Breathing in or swallowing water containing HABs and their toxins can result in the following symptoms: watery eyes, runny nose, asthma-like symptoms, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, numbness, headaches, dizziness, and difficulty breathing.

Skin contact can cause rashes, blisters and hives.

The release states that animals, especially dogs, can become ill or die after contact with HABs.

Signs of health problems for animals can include vomiting, diarrhea, staggered walking and convulsions.

Ways to help keep dogs safe include keeping them out of the water wherever surface scums or discolored water are visible, bringing along clean, fresh water for them to drink, and rinsing them off after contact with any lake water.

If a pet or livestock animal becomes sick after contact with water that may have an HAB, it is recommended that a veterinarian be contacted right away.

Cases of animal illness due to HAB exposure can be reported by submitting a Reportable Disease Form located at michigan.gov/dvmresources under “Reportable Diseases,” or by calling (800) 292-3939  between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays.

Learning about nutrient pollution can help prevent HABs.

Nutrients that cause the blooms can be reduced by:

• Using phosphate-free detergents.

• Disposing of pet waste properly.

• Applying fertilizer only when necessary and only the recommended amount according to label instructions. According to the release, a buffer should be left when applying fertilizer near a lake or stream.

• Promoting natural shoreline use, including growing native vegetation along the water’s edge.

• Developing or updating a watershed management plan, or WMP, with like-minded residents.

A WMP identifies pollutants that are causing water quality problems and the sources of those pollutants, and recommends actions that can be taken to reduce pollutant inputs into surface waters.   

More information on health effects, causes and reports on the occurrence of HABs in Michigan lakes can be found at Michigan.gov/habs.

For more information on HABs and your health, contact the MDHHS at (800) 648-6942.

For more information on HABs and pets and livestock, contact the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development at 800-292-3939.

For more information on HABs and the environment, contact EGLE at 800-662-9278.