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Blue-green algae reports boomed in North Dakota

North Dakota health officials issued a record-setting number of blue-green algae advisories and warnings last summer for bodies of water across the state.

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North Dakota health officials issued a record-setting number of blue-green algae advisories and warnings last summer for bodies of water across the state.

Mike Ell, an environmental scientist with the North Dakota Department of Health, said the division of water quality posted alerts for 15 lakes and reservoirs last summer with potentially unsafe levels of the algae and a toxin it produces. The last of the advisories were rescinded Oct. 28, a date Ell described as later than usual.

Summer 2015 yielded only one warning, which was made for the reservoir at Homme Dam on the Park River. For the summer before that, the state health department recorded no warnings or advisories for blue-green algae.

"That's not to say there were more blooms this year than in previous years," Ell said. "My sense is that the number of warnings and advisories we ordered this year was in response to a greater awareness in the public and notification in our agency that there were suspected blooms going on."

Blue-green algae is a common and naturally occurring set of bacteria which can be spurred into exponential growth when provided with favorable circumstances such as warm temperatures and ample nutrients. In agriculture-heavy North Dakota, fertilizer runoff coupled with summer heat and relatively low water levels provided a welcoming environment for the algae to bloom.

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Blue-green algae species have won the attention of health officials for the host of natural poisons they can produce. Of these poisons, known broadly as cyanotoxins, Ell said a kind of liver-affecting agent called microcystin has been predominant in North Dakota.

Microcystin causes detrimental effects in humans both through contact and ingestion.

Symptoms of poisoning can occur as soon as an hour after exposure to affected water and include rashes, inflamed nasal passages and congestion. Ell said ingestion of microcystin can cause nausea and diarrhea at lower levels. At higher levels of ingestion, the toxin can cause liver failure.

Risks to pets, livestock

Due to the prevalence of blue-green algae and the harm it can cause, Ell said the health department made a "concerted effort to get the word out" among parks and recreation departments, health managers in local districts, fisheries and other public entities throughout the state.

"We asked folks to keep their eyes open," he said, adding that citizen monitoring had been coupled with a routine monitoring program conducted by the health department. "When we're notified of a bloom, we're out there sampling the water for the presence for the blue-green algae as well as the toxin produced there."

Ell said his office was notified of the death of a dog due to liver failure thought to be related to exposure to blue-green algae around Labor Day weekend in Lake Ashtabula, north of Valley City, N.D. After the death was reported, state health officials sampled lake water and documented microcystin at several locations.

Susan Keller, North Dakota's state veterinarian, said dogs can be more susceptible to cyanotoxin poisoning than people due to their canine habit of licking themselves, by which they can ingest the toxin off their fur.

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Their role as a kind of furry mineshaft canary can cast dogs as "sentinels" demonstrating the presence of harmful substances in the water.

"If a dog is exposed, you'll see clinical signs pretty quickly," Keller said.

Livestock also are at risk in areas affected by blue-green algae, and Ell said his office has received reports of livestock deaths in past years in areas where animals were watered at ponds where blooms were recorded. He was unaware of any livestock mortalities due to cyanotoxin poisoning this year and said he received "a lot of phone calls" from livestock owners questioning suspicious-looking algal features in pastures and watering supplies.

Keller said the heightened risk to pets and livestock boosts the imperative of keeping them out of potentially affected water. Any animals-including human beings-exposed to impacted lake water should wash off immediately, she said.

'Err on the side of caution'

The heightened number of reports and warnings of blue-green algae blooms isn't surprising to Keller, given the focus on raising awareness of the issue.

"Like with any disease, we've noticed that, too," she said. "Once the public becomes more educated and concerned, they start reporting. We're starting to see levels that reflect that, but that's OK because it's better to err on the side of caution than to see the fatalities and sickness."

Though human fatalities due to microcystin are more rare than animal deaths, Ell said his office received multiple reports of people suffering the effects of the toxin.

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One man he spoke to, Ell recalled, had been attempting to clean algae off his beach over the course of several days and weeks. The man was experiencing several symptoms of microcystin poisoning throughout that time but didn't realize what was happening to him until he watched Ell discussing blue-green algae in a television report put together with North Dakota Game and Fish.

Stories like that, Ell said, drive home the importance of educating the public. With no real preventative measures for blue-green algae blooms other than preventing runoff and erosion-and with warm fall weather creating conditions where lingering algae might still find a foothold-the information campaign will be ongoing.

"We don't want to see people get sick, and we don't want to see pets and livestock die," he said. "The more information we can get out there on the potential risk, the more we get in front of it and make people more aware of the problem, the better off we'll be."

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