On Wednesday (May 14), U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer urged the Environmental Protection Agency to act quickly to help curb the threat that toxic algae found in nearly 100 Upstate New York water bodies is posing to drinking water and New York residents. Schumer explained that conditions are ripe for record blue-green algae blooms in Upstate New York, and that the toxins that this algae produces, cyanotoxins, have the potential to contaminate local drinking water because many of these lakes or reservoirs are drinking water sources.
This toxin is also found in lakes that are used for boating and swimming, putting swimmers at risk and also potentially causing beach closures, which harm tourism and the local economy.
Therefore, Schumer is urging the EPA to issue guidance to help protect New York drinking water supplies and New York residents.
First, Schumer asked the EPA to issue guidance to help local water treatment plants test for and treat cyanotoxins in drinking water sources. Over a dozen countries including Canada currently test drinking water for cyanotoxins, but to date the EPA has not issued guidance on testing in the United States. Second, Schumer urged the EPA to develop water quality criteria for cyanotoxins in ambient water, which will help states better identify contaminated water bodies and implement water quality improvement programs that will help keep beaches open and drinking water safe.
“Lakes are some of Upstate New York’s greatest resources – for tourism, recreation, and for healthy drinking water – but toxic algae blooms threaten to greatly undercut the value of this resource, and what’s more, have the potential to contaminate drinking water and make people sick,” said Senator Schumer. “So I’m announcing a two-pronged plan that will help keep New Yorkers safe and protect our valuable lakes and reservoirs. First, I am urging the EPA to issue guidance and recommendations to local water treatment plans on how best to test for and treat these cyanotoxins. Second, I am pushing the EPA to develop clear water quality criteria for cyanotoxin levels in ambient water so that states like New York can better identify contaminated lakes and implement programs that will improve water quality.”
“With these two steps – one to address contamination in drinking water and one to address contamination in lakes primarily used for recreation — we can safeguard that glass of water we drink every day and ensure that lakes across Upstate New York can be enjoyed by tourists and residents alike,” he continued.
Due to a number of factors, including runoff from nearby agricultural areas and aging sewer systems, the amount of phosphorus in lakes across Upstate New York has increased in recent years, causing large algal blooms to grow in the water.
Climate change has also brought warmer temperatures and more spring rainfall, both of which favor the growth of algae blooms.
Blue-green algae blooms in particular produce cyanotoxins, which form as the algal blooms rob oxygen from the water.
In incidents reported throughout the U.S., water contamination caused by cyanotoxins has resulted in illness, beach closures, and animal deaths. In some areas of New York, conditions are ripe this year for record toxic algae blooms because – due to the Polar Vortex that hit this winter and the subsequent milder temperatures – rapid melting occurred. This caused extra runoff from nearby farms, whose soil contains phosphorous, a major contributing factor to the growing algae populations in many of our lakes.
Schumer explained that these factors, as well as increased human activity near water bodies, has resulted in the toxic algae blooms becoming more widespread than before.
According to a recent report by the National Wildlife Federation, New York leads a nationwide list for reports of toxic blue-green algae.
Schumer provided data on the number of Upstate New York water bodies that have had reported instances of toxic algae blooms over the past two years, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. In total, the state has reported that blue-green algae blooms have been found in nearly 100 upstate New York lakes.
• In the Capital Region, there were 17 lakes with reported algae blooms
• In Western New York, there were 8 lakes with reported algae blooms
• In the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region, there were 4 lakes with reported algae blooms
• In the Southern Tier, there were 16 lakes with reported algae blooms
• In Central New York, there were 17 lakes with reported algae blooms
• In the Hudson Valley, there were 27 lakes with reported algae blooms
• In the North Country, there were 7 lakes with reported algae blooms
The cyanotoxins found in Upstate New York water bodies include neurotoxins (affect the nervous system), hepatotoxins (affect the liver), and dermatoxins (affect the skin).
The presence of high levels of cyanotoxins in recreational water and drinking water may cause a wide range of symptoms including fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blisters, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, and allergic reactions. Such effects can occur within minutes to days after exposure. In severe cases, seizures, liver failure, respiratory arrest, and death may occur, although very rarely.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported on three instances in which a total of six people suffered rashes, sores, swelling, eye irritation and congestion after exposure to algal toxins in New York lakes.
In addition, in 2009 Wisconsin had more than 57 algae bloom related illnesses, and in the late 1990s more than 75 people died of liver failure in Brazil after drinking water contaminated with cyanotoxins.
Cyanotoxin contaminated water also impacts animals – claiming the lives of hundreds of animals, including elk, cows, and dogs across the country in recent years.
Although the hazards associated with cyanotoxins are apparent, and the risk this year is especially clear, the toxin has not been added to the EPA’s regulated contaminant list; rather it is listed on the potential contaminants list. Without this regulation, the EPA has not released guidelines or assistance for how local water treatment plants can prevent cyanotoxins from entering drinking water.
And, in the case of ambient water bodies, which are used mostly for recreation the EPA has not set criteria on water quality that would help states identify when a body of water is contaminated with cyanotoxins.
Therefore, Schumer is launching a two-pronged plan to address the growing problem of algae blooms and cyanotoxins in Upstate New York bodies of water. First, he is pressing the EPA to assist and direct local water treatment plants on how to more effectively filter water to avoid the presence of cyanotoxins; specifically the three types of toxins described above.
This would require the EPA to regulate and release guidance on cyanotoxins. Local water treatment plants should receive guidance on how to test for and treat cyanotoxins in the water supply, to mitigate the potential for contaminated drinking water, Schumer said.
The EPA has issued such guidelines for other contaminants like arsenic and lead.
Second, Schumer is urging the EPA to develop water quality criteria for cyanotoxins in ambient water. Schumer explained that these criteria – which would help states set standards for safe levels of these toxins – will help New York state and local communities develop their own criteria for which water bodies are in danger, which ones they should monitor, and which need immediate assistance. Overall, these criteria would help the New York State DEC more effectively implement water quality improvement programs that prevent toxic algal blooms and help clean them up when they are found. Schumer noted that, as the nation’s foremost scientific authority on environmental issues, the EPA should play a major role in identifying where the problem is most pressing and how to fix it, especially since the widespread nature of the problem is relatively recent.
In addition to this two-pronged push, Schumer is also working to attack the problem at its source by working to limit the sources that cause these algae blooms from making it into watersheds in the first place. One aspect of this is to upgrade aging sewer systems, which contribute to the algae growth with their periodic overflows and septic discharges. Schumer is working to address this sewer problem through his ongoing push to preserve or increase federal funding that can be used to upgrade aging sewer systems.
Another way to help mitigate the cause of toxic algae that Schumer noted is through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) – a program that is part of the Farm Bill Schumer helped pass earlier this year.
Specifically, EQIP provides over $1 billion in financial assistance to farmers each year for conservation efforts that will help them limit erosion and runoff from their farms. According to Schumer, this will help farmers mitigate the phosphorous runoff which is contributing to algae growth.