Legislation Addresses Blue-Green Algae by State Rep. Doug Cox, M.D.
We are all familiar with the blue-green algae outbreak experienced at many Oklahoma lakes last year. I learned that there was a hodge-podge of state agencies dealing with the issue, with no coordinated interaction between them. The result was a response that had a devastating response on lake tourism.
Working with my legislative colleagues state Rep. Tommy Hardin and state Sen. Josh Brecheen from the Lake Texoma area, we established a state policy for response to outbreaks of blue-green algae blooms in recreational bodies of water.
As a physician, I was particularly interested in protecting public health as well as Oklahoma’s rural economies that are dependent on tourism at our lakes and rivers.
The policy was developed after meeting and getting input from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, the Corps of Engineers, the Grand River Dam Authority, the Oklahoma Health Department, the Oklahoma Department of Tourism, several OU Health Science Center toxin experts and the U.S. Department of Wildlife.
GRDA CEO Dan Sullivan and Dr. Darrell Townsend, a GRDA biologist, and their laboratory at the Eco Center in Langley were very helpful. We found GRDA far ahead of the other state agencies in dealing appropriately with the issue.
Let’s look at some facts about blue-green algae and what the legislation does:
Blue-Green Algae Basics:
- · Algae are vitally important to marine and fresh-water ecosystems, and most species of algae are not harmful.
- · Algae blooms occur in natural waters when certain types of microscopic algae grow quickly, often in response to changes in levels of chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer.
- · Scientists do not yet understand fully how Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) affect human health. To date, there has not been a single human death in the United States that has been attributed to blue-green algae.
- · Within a few days, a blue-green algae bloom can cause clear water to become cloudy. The blooms usually float to the surface and can be many inches thick, especially near the shoreline. However, the toxins they produce are invisible.
- · Infants and pets will be more sensitive to toxin ingestion.
- · Some cyanobacterial algae blooms can look like foam, scum or mats on the surface of fresh water lakes and ponds. The blooms can be blue, bright green, brown, or red and may look like paint floating on the water. As algae in a cyanobacterial bloom die, the water may smell bad.
- · When identifying the number of Oklahoma lakes that are susceptible to blue-green algae growth because of high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, it would be easier to list the few lakes that aren’t.
What the legislation does:
- · Requires the Oklahoma Department of Tourism to develop and maintain a website that allows the public to check water quality and to make written information available on location.
- · Requires lake managers to place signs at major access points that refer lake users to the blue-green algae website.
- · Directs the Oklahoma Department of Health to educate healthcare providers on the effects and symptoms of exposure to toxic blue-green algae.
- · Utilizes the World Health Organization guidelines for moderate probability of adverse health effects.
- · Sets the threshold for issuing an advisory at 100,000 cells per milliliter for cell count and 20 micrograms per liter for microcystin toxin levels.
- · Permits privately-funded water testing if the research is scientifically verifiable.
The legislation works to combine education and information with personal responsibility. We all have learned that drowning is a risk of swimming without a life jacket and that drinking and driving a boat don’t mix. The latest advice is to check for Blue-Green Algae warnings.
Not only should you not eat yellow snow, you shouldn’t swim in green water!