What you need to know about harmful algal blooms

What you need to know about harmful algal blooms | www.APHLblog.org

By Julianne Murphy, intern, Environmental Health

Warm weather brings nature walks, picnics and sunny days by the shore, but it can also bring unwanted changes to your favorite beach. As the temperature rises, lake and ocean waters can turn from blue to mossy green as algae proliferates in unsightly and potentially harmful algal blooms.

What are harmful algal blooms?

Algae are plant-like organisms of one or more cells that use sunlight to make food. Together they can form colonies called algal blooms in both marine and freshwater systems. Some of these algal blooms are hazardous to health, but not all algal blooms are harmful.

Harmful algal blooms may release toxins at concentrations unsafe to humans and animals and may drastically reduce oxygen available to aquatic life. In fresh water bodies, cyanobacteria, aka “blue-green algae,” can produce dangerous cyanotoxins; in saltwater or brackish water, acid-generating plankton – dinoflagellates and diatoms – can pose a health threat.

Should I be concerned about algal blooms?

Algal blooms can pose a risk for human and animal health. People and animals can become ill through eating, drinking, breathing or having direct skin contact with harmful algal blooms and their toxins. Illnesses vary based on the exposure, toxins and toxin levels. Public health and environmental laboratories test samples from harmful algal blooms to confirm the presence and level of toxicity. Remember, not all algal blooms are harmful.

How are public health officials responding to the increase in algal bloom events?

As climate change events amplify conditions favorable to algal blooms, public health scientists are studying when and where associated illnesses are occurring and how to mitigate the effects of exposure. Their efforts have led to increased laboratory testing and electronic surveillance measures at the state and federal level.

For example, public health and environmental officials in Alaska have been tracking and testing harmful algal blooms. The Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network, a collaboration of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) and regional monitoring programs, analyzes fish kills, unusual animal behaviors and other related phenomenon to provide early warning of developing coastal marine blooms. DHSS scientists analyze human specimens for illnesses associated with harmful algal blooms, such as paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) caused by saxitoxins. PSP is a potentially fatal poisoning with no treatment except supportive care. Samples from symptomatic patients are forwarded to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for confirmatory testing as needed. Testing of asymptomatic individuals may be included in future studies.

In addition, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) laboratories test marine shellfish meat samples protect public health and safety as well as for regulatory purposes, illness investigations and non-commercial shellfish upon request. This monitoring literally saves lives.

David Verbrugge, chief chemist at the DHSS Division of Public Health, explains the value of Alaska’s testing of harmful algal blooms, “[Laboratory analysis] helps us to understand the nature of PSP exposures: frequency of occurrence, confirmation when lacking meals to test, and the presence or absence of toxins in asymptomatic co-exposed groups. It also allows us to let people know what they are eating before they eat it.”

Is the CDC involved in testing and surveillance for harmful algal blooms?

Yes, only for freshwater. In 2016, CDC created the One Health Harmful Algal Bloom System to provide a voluntary, electronic reporting system for states, federal agencies and their partners. Using the system, which integrates human, animal and environmental health data using a One Health approach, public health departments and their environmental and animal health partners can report bloom events, and human and animal cases of associated illness. Members of the public may report a bloom event or a case of human or animal illness to the One Health system by contacting their local or state health department.

What is the outlook for future testing and surveillance of harmful algal blooms?

As climatic conditions become more favorable to development of harmful algal blooms, state and local health departments will have to ramp up surveillance and testing to protect public health and to preserve local revenue from beaches. These actions will come with a price tag, requiring action at all levels of government. Resources can be leveraged through collaboration to research and expand clinical testing capacity for these persistent health threats.

Learn More:

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Hurricane preparation and response resource list

Hurricane preparation and response resource list | www.APHLblog.org

Updated September 15, 2017

In the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, public health laboratories in affected regions will be busy testing for potential environmental contamination, monitoring for increased water- and mosquito-borne diseases, or repairing damage to their own facilities. APHL has activated its Incident Command System (ICS) to support member laboratories with their response. The ICS team is participating in CDC’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) State/Local and Partner Conference Calls, and will assist member labs with their response, facilitate communications between CDC and member labs, and share lab needs/stories with policy makers and the public.

Below are helpful resources for those communities hit by the recent storms. Many of these resources are useful for any severe weather event, not just Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Preparing for and weathering the storm

Hurricanes, Preparation and Response, EPA
Hurricane Preparedness Checklist, FDA
Preparing for a Hurricane or Tropical Storm, CDC
Flooding Toolkit, National Public Health Information Coalition
Disaster Assistance.gov, US government platform for locating disaster-related resources
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Toll-free FEMA hotline for survivors of Hurricane Harvey: 1-800-621-FEMA

Keeping your family and community healthy after the storm

Food Safety:
Food Safety Tips for Areas Affected by Hurricane Irma, USDA press release
Protect Food and Water Before, During and After a Storm, FDA

Infectious Diseases:
Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, CDC
Vector-borne Diseases, CDC​​​​​​​
Waterborne Disease Prevention, CDC

Drinking Water:
Drinking Water Safety and Testing Information for Texas, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (accredited labs for microbial testing of drinking water, advice for customers of public water systems, disinfecting your well, etc.)
Drinking Water Testing and Information for Houston, TX, City of Houston
Private Wells: What to Do after the Flood, EPA
Private Wells: Water-related Diseases and Contaminants, CDC
Health Department Laboratory, Drinking Water Testing and Information, City of Houston

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – Clinical Guidance, CDC
Mold: Cleanup and Remediation, CDC
Mold: Flood Cleanup, EPA
Waste Management, EPA

Rebuilding and repair

Cleanup after a Hurricane, CDC
Status of Systems in Areas Affected by Harvey, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – drinking water, waste water and sewage, residential wells, flood waters, water infrastructure

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Rhode Island laboratory responds to toxic algae bloom, safeguarding health and the local economy

Rhode Island laboratory responds to toxic algae bloom, safeguarding health and the local economy | www.APHL.org

by Kim Krisberg

Every week, the Rhode Island State Health Laboratory tests water from Narragansett Bay, monitoring the estuary for harmful toxin producing plankton that can contaminate the seafood that makes it to market. The testing protects both consumers and the fishermen who depend on a healthy bay for their livelihoods.

Last October, that routine testing revealed large numbers of the algae Pseudo-nitzschia — numbers much higher than what’s considered normal. Pseudo-nitzschia can produce a neurotoxin known as domoic acid. In people, domoic acid can lead to amnesic shellfish poisoning, which can result in permanent short-term memory loss and even death. So with the sudden algal bloom detected, laboratory staff quickly began toxicity testing. Tests came back positive.

The results meant the public health laboratory had just detected Rhode Island’s first Pseudo-nitzschia bloom and triggered a statewide contingency plan designed to keep contaminated shellfish from reaching people’s plates.

“Our goal is to protect public health, but this could also affect the shellfishing economy and the harvesters here — the whole reputation of Rhode Island shellfish could go down the drain if people did get sick,” said Henry Leibovitz, PhD, chief environmental laboratory scientist at the Rhode Island Department of Health State Health Laboratories.

Contingency plan activated, laboratory staff began testing shellfish meat collected from areas with high algae counts. The meat tested positive for domoic acid levels beyond safe thresholds set by the US Food and Drug Administration. In response, on October 7, Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management (DEM) officially closed down shellfish collection in parts of the bay. Leibovitz said it was the first time this particular type of algal bloom brought shellfish harvesting to a halt in the area.

As harvesting on the bay stopped, laboratory staff ramped up their testing of water and meat samples collected by the DEM as well as of quarantined shellfish already on the market.

“We wanted to prevent contaminated shellfish from getting to people and reopen the bay as soon as it was safe,” Leibovitz said.

Thankfully, none of the quarantined shellfish tested positive for contamination and within a few weeks, algae counts began dropping. A few weeks after the bloom began, Leibovitz said the number and density of plankton declined to a point where the shellfish had a chance to cleanse themselves of the toxin. Laboratory staff began seeing results well below safety thresholds so that Rhode Island shellfish were safe for consumption. By the beginning of November, DEM reopened the bay to shellfish harvesting.

Then in February, the laboratory detected another Pseudo-nitzschia bloom and high toxin levels — this time, in a part of the bay closest to the ocean. (On a side note, Leibovitz said some experts speculate that the initial bloom never really died out entirely off shore, and the bloom returned to the mouth of bay where it meets the ocean.) Based on the results, DEM shut down shellfish harvesting again on March 1, eventually reopening on March 24.

Throughout the two closures, no cases of human illness related to contaminated shellfish were reported.

During the blooms, laboratory scientists conducted hundreds of complicated tests in the span of a single month — “everyone had to stay late and get it done because we needed the answers right away,” Leibovitz said. He noted that even though the laboratory is prepared for such a surge, it’s still “very challenging” to keep up for weeks at a time.

That’s because within the laboratory’s water microbiology unit, none of the four scientists do shellfish testing on a full-time basis. They’re also responsible for testing drinking water, beach water, dairy samples, river water and animals for rabies. But when the algal bloom appeared, the entire water microbiology laboratory turned its attention to keeping toxic shellfish off people’s plates and re-opening the bay as quickly and safely as possible. At one point, scientists from a different division within the state laboratory were called over to help.

“It’s very time-consuming and our other responsibilities don’t stop,” Leibovitz noted. “We’ve always had a contingency plan in place, but the laboratory isn’t staffed to do this (level of testing) on a routine basis and last fall, it became routine.”

So, what caused the algal bloom? Leibovitz said, “no one really knows yet.” But one theory is that successful efforts to keep stormwater runoff out of Narragansett Bay has reduced nutrients in the bay to the point that Pseudo-nitzschia may not have the competition from other algal species that flourished for years in the nutrient-rich environment. The cleaner waters of the bay may now be more supportive of Pseudo-nitzschia growth as are the waters outside of the bay, where they typically thrive.

“The worry is that this could be the new normal,” Leibovitz said. “But the group that works in the water microbiology laboratory are really dedicated to ensuring Rhode Island shellfish in the market are good and safe to eat…when something like this happens, they step up.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s unknown how many people in the US are sickened due to harmful algae blooms, as such occurrences aren’t tracked nationally. However, state and local public health agencies can now report such illnesses to the One Health Harmful Algae Bloom System, which launched last year. CDC did report that economic costs associated with such blooms have gone up in recent decades, costing the fishing and tourism industries millions of dollars each year.

Photo of Narraganset Bay via WPRI

From The Lorax to the Laboratory

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