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July 22, 2014

Health Officials Warn of Dangers of Blue-Green Algae

OSWEGO COUNTY - The Oswego County Health Department reminds people using area beaches this summer to be on the look-out for blue-green algae, a microscopic organism that can pose a health risk to humans and animals when they are exposed to them in large enough quantities.

"Blue-green algae are naturally present in lake and streams, usually in low numbers," said Natalie Roy, associate environmental health sanitarian for the Oswego County Health Department. "They can become very abundant in warm, shallow, undisturbed surface water that receives a lot of sunlight. When this occurs, the algae can form blooms that float on the water surface and discolor the water."

Blue-green algae blooms usually occur during the hottest part of the summer. When water that contains high levels of blue-green algae toxins is swallowed or absorbed through the skin, or when airborne droplets are inhaled, health effects can occur.

"Consuming water that contains high levels of blue-green algal toxins has been associated with effects on the liver and the nervous system in laboratory animals, pets, livestock and people," said Roy. "Livestock and pet deaths have occurred when animals consume very large amounts of accumulated algal scum from along shorelines."

Blue-green algae blooms may be present in water that is visibly discolored in shades of green, blue-green, yellow, brown or red, or water that has surface scums. Water affected by blue-green algae blooms often is so strongly colored that it can develop a paint-like appearance. Unpleasant tastes or odors are not reliable indicators.

The Oswego County Health Department's Environmental Division monitors public swimming beaches and investigates reports of suspected blue-green algae at public beaches. Anyone who suspects blue-green algae in a public swimming area should call the health department weekdays at 315-349-3557.

Jiancheng Huang, Public Health Director, recommends people take these steps to avoid exposure to blue-green algae:

  • Never drink untreated surface water, whether or not algae blooms are present. Untreated surface water may contain other bacteria, parasites or viruses, as well as algal toxins, which all could cause illness if consumed.

  • People who are not on public water supplies should not drink surface water, even if it is treated, during an algal bloom. In-home treatment such as boiling and disinfecting water with chlorine or UV and water filtration units do not protect people from blue-green algal toxins.

  • If washing dishes in untreated surface water is unavoidable, rinse with bottled water to reduce possible residues.

  • People, pets and livestock should avoid contact with water that is discolored or has scums on the surface. If contact does occur, wash with soap and water or rinse thoroughly with clean water to remove algae.

  • Stop using the water and seek medical attention as needed, if symptoms such as skin, eye or throat irritation, allergic reactions or breathingdifficulties occur while in contact with untreated surface waters. However, swimming, bathing or showering with water not visibly affected by a blue-green algae bloom is not expected to cause health effects.
  • For more information about blue-green algae and its health effects, visit www.health.ny.gov.

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