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.

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The post What you need to know about harmful algal blooms appeared first on APHL Lab Blog.

A man examines the teeth of a 10-month-old Alaskan Malamute…



A man examines the teeth of a 10-month-old Alaskan Malamute puppy near the South Pole, 1957. Photograph by David Boyer, National Geographic Creative

Climate Capital: Assessing the hidden value of coastal ecosystems

By Gordon Ober                 Measuring the fiscal value of ecosystems Ecosystems provide both direct and indirect services to the environment. Direct services are the ones we can essentially see, and are often given … Continue reading »

The post Climate Capital: Assessing the hidden value of coastal ecosystems appeared first on PLOS Blogs Network.

A balloon from Anchorage, Alaska, flies over Cook Inlet,…



A balloon from Anchorage, Alaska, flies over Cook Inlet, 1986. Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic Creative

A sled dog, tied to a whale rib, howls under the midnight sun in…



A sled dog, tied to a whale rib, howls under the midnight sun in Alaska, 1969.Photograph by Thomas J. Abercrombie, National Geographic Creative

Serving Alaskans with Disability: An Integrated Approach

Alaska banner

By: Amanda Cooper, Alaska Health and Disability Program Manager

With 663,000 square miles of land, rural location, and risk for at least seven types of natural disasters, Alaska’s emergency preparedness efforts are vital to the health and well-being of its residents. The majority of Alaska is inaccessible by road; therefore, emergency response efforts rely mostly on air and water transportation. Alaska invests heavily in its local and state health and medical surge capacity following a disaster. Of Alaska’s 735,000 residents, 23.8% live with disability. In addition, only half have enough food and water to last 5 to 7 days, the minimum time Alaska recommends for its citizens plan to be prepared. The unique needs of the state combined with the complex needs of Alaskans with disabilities mean preparedness efforts need to be comprehensive, integrated, and proactive. The State of Alaska has an integrated approach to increasing disaster education and awareness, preparation, and response.

Alaska Health and Disability Program logoThe Alaska Health and Disability Program (AHDP) uses a grant from CDC’s Disability and Health Program to work on several emergency preparedness projects aimed at improving preparedness among Alaskans with disability. Our most intensive effort centers on training for service providers, caregivers, and Alaskans living with disabilities and their families. Using the Get Ready! toolkit, Alaska’s adapted version of Oregon’s Ready Now toolkit, the program provides in-depth training for adults with disability that addresses who, what, when, where, why, and how of emergency preparedness. Participants are introduced to the Get Ready! toolkit and given guidance on how to use the toolkit to develop an emergency plan and build home and go emergency kits, called SKIP kits.

SKIP – Safety Kept in Place

Photo of Alaska SKIP Kit with emergency items.Training includes the highly interactive activity of building a personal Safety Kept In Place (SKIP) kit, a small emergency preparedness starter kit that include items such as small flashlights, mylar blankets, bandanas, permanent markers, whistles, and hand warmers. The AHDP’s goal is to provide a SKIP kit to every Alaskan with disability to keep in cars, desks, backpacks, and other easily accessible locations. In addition to the Get Ready! training, SKIP kits can be requested from the AHDP at no cost for any Alaskan living with a disability. We have recruited volunteers who are assembling 5,000 kits for distribution in fiscal year 2015.

Plan and Practice

In March 2014, Alaska led the Alaska Shield 2014 exercise to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 9.2 magnitude Great Alaska 1964 Earthquake by replicating the earthquake’s effects and resulting tsunami. The Department of Health and Social Services conducted the health and medical component, exercising its capacity to meet the medical needs of patients in a catastrophic earthquake. Alaska, the first state to own and operate a former Federal Medical Station, erected the Alaska Medical Station and treated 356 non-critical patients in 7 hours over two days. Additionally, Samaritan’s Purse opened a field hospital adjacent to the Alaska Medical Station. These resources stood ready to address the needs of all Alaskans, including individuals with disability, who do not require hospitalization. During Alaska Shield 2014, in-state resources and federal assets were used to move patients to unaffected locations in and out of state. During an actual disaster, these resources would only be utilized as a last resort.

Building an Infrastructure using Lessons Learned

Cover of AHDP brochure with people and a house.After the Alaska Shield exercise and the 2013 Galena flood, our expertise was called in to create the DHSS Emergency Operations Plan Functional and Access Needs Annex (FANA). FANA will provide the structure, policies, and procedures needed to meet the needs of Alaskans with disability during an emergency. Disabilities addressed in FANA include a variety of visual, mobility, cognitive, emotional, mental, and physical limitations. Since the needs of Alaskans with disability during disasters are more complex, specific planning is necessary.

In addition to the FANA, the lessons learned from both local and national disasters identified gaps in service for adults with disabilities. Over the next few years, the AHDP and partners will address three areas of need for Alaskans with disability.

  1. In partnership with several state and private agencies, we will provide guidance and technical assistance to disability-related agencies on preparing realistic continuity of operations plans, and for technical assistance and equipment provision in disaster response.
  2. We will work to strengthen communication and training between emergency managers and disability agencies with the goal of full integration of Alaskans with disability in emergency planning and disaster exercising on a community and statewide level.
  3. To turn our vision of 100% accessible shelters into a reality, we will enter into a new partnership with the American Red Cross of Alaska to provide technical assistance on improving shelter accessibility.

With help from CDC, Alaska has made great strides in improving emergency preparedness for Alaskans with disability. AHDP has been able to actively focus not only on emergency preparedness for Alaskans living with a disability, but on health promotion as well. The creation of the AHDP has opened the door to increased advocacy, awareness, planning, and training. The combination of current and future efforts will ensure that Alaskans with disability are included, supported, and regarded during all phases of disaster planning and response. As Alaska moves” North to the Future,(our state motto), the emergency preparedness efforts focused on Alaskans with disability will continue on a dynamic, progressive path.

To learn more, visit:

Alaska Health and Disability Program

Alaska Health and Disability Program Facebook page

CDC’s Disability and Health Program

Amanda Cooper serves as the Alaska Health and Disability Program Manager. Amanda’s focus areas include health promotion and emergency preparedness for Alaskans with disability. Amanda received her Master of Public Health degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage and her Bachelor of Arts degree in biology from Northwest Nazarene University.

Exercise! Exercise! Exercise!

Alaska Earthquake

You could say that those of us who work in preparedness are a little obsessed with making sure we’ve got our emergency kits stocked and ready, our emergency plans up to date, and our neighbors are ready too.  So we’ve got a few households in Georgia ready for a public health emergency (and a few others around the country – don’t forget about friends and family!), but how do we get the country ready?  How do we get the government and other response organizations prepared?

The answer, just like learning how to ride a bike, is practice. Practice, practice, and more practice.  And this past week, CDC participated in a government-wide exercise that tested our preparedness and response capabilities.  The National Exercise Program Capstone Exercise (NEPCE) 2014 is a congressionally mandated preparedness exercise to test, assess, and improve the nation’s preparedness and resiliency.  CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (PHPR) and the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (NCEH/ATSDR) worked together to participate in this event.  

NEPCE 2014 was designed to educate and prepare the whole community – from schools to businesses and hospitals to families – to prevent, mitigate against, protect from, respond to, and recover from acts of terroristic and catastrophic incidents. This was the first Capstone Exercise, formerly known as National Level Exercise, incorporated into the newly revised National Exercise Plan (NEP), concluding and building on two years of smaller scale exercises.  The NEP includes exercises of all types, designed to engage all levels of government, non-government organizations and private sector organizations. 

exercise briefingThis exercise culminated over nine months of interagency planning efforts among DHS, HHS and CDC along with our state and local partners.  CDC planning officials attended planning meetings in Washington, D.C. to integrate CDC operations into the exercise. Additionally, CDC deployed four public health personnel with the HHS Incident Response Coordination Team to Sacramento, California, during the exercise to simulate coordination activities that CDC would normally provide to the impacted population.

History Repeats Itself for Exercise Purposes

The exercise scenario centered on a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in Alaska that caused catastrophic damage across multiple communities, requiring federal response and recovery assistance.  A similar event happened in Alaska at the same time in 1964.

As it did 50 years ago, the earthquake resulted in several tsunamis with substantial threat and damage to critical infrastructure like buildings, bridges, and roads, along with injuries, deaths, and population displacement across Alaska and Canada. While national officials confronted earthquake and tsunami impacts, disruption in and around Juneau, the capital, resulted in a requirement for government entities to relocate to alternate sites.

RADM Scott Deitchman, M.D. M.P.H., USPHS, Assistant Surgeon General who is the Associate Director for Environmental Health Emergencies in NCEH/ATSDR served as the Incident Manager and lead for the exercise. He remarked, “I appreciated the opportunity the exercise gave us, like the rest of government, to exercise how we would respond to a catastrophic disaster of this magnitude. A real earthquake, like a nuclear detonation, suddenly puts you in a situation where the things we take for granted – communications systems to give messages to the public, transportation systems to send responders to the area, data systems for collecting surveillance data – all are gone. How do we launch a public health response in that setting? In exercises like this, the goal is to “test to fail” – to see where things break down, in a setting where we can learn without failing people in actual need. That gives us the opportunity to strengthen our response systems in anticipation of a real disaster.”

exercise planningOne of CDC’s primary missions is to ensure that we are prepared to assist the nation to respond to, recover from, and alleviate the impacts of public health disasters.  Participation in last week’s exercise enhanced our overall ability to support our nation during emergency situations. 

During this and other exercises, all aspects of CDC’s response capabilities are tested.  Managed out of CDC’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), this exercise brought together experts in public health preparedness, as well as those with expertise in earthquakes.  During a real emergency, CDC would activate the EOC in order to help coordinate the Agency’s response.  Although no exercise will truly mimic a real life emergency, we do everything possible to imagine what could happen – from dealing with power outages to delays in supplies reaching affected areas to incorrect media reports and wild rumors – in order to test who we would respond.  After the exercise is over, we work with the other organizations involved and analyze what went well and what could be improved upon next time.

David Maples, Exercise Lead for OPHPR’s Division of Exercise Operations, commented, “The Alaska Shield earthquake exercise provided CDC the primary venue to validate our All-Hazards Plan and its Natural Disaster Annex and Earthquake Appendix.  We engaged our whole of community partners in this exercise at the federal, state and local levels, our tribal partners as well as several non-governmental organizations and private public health partners.  Maintaining these relationships is essential to our ability to get our public health guidance and messaging into the hands of those impacted by an event like this.  In a catastrophic natural disaster similar to the one we just exercised, CDC’s mission is just the beginning. Similar to our real world response to Superstorm Sandy, the recovery phase of an event like this will challenge our public health capabilities for some time.  But that is the goodness of our Public Health Preparedness and Response exercise program; it gives us the opportunity to prepare for no-notice disasters and emergent outbreaks before they occur.”

A man balances a piece of pumice rock on his legs in Katmai…



A man balances a piece of pumice rock on his legs in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska, September 1921.Photograph by Lucius G. Folsom, National Geographic

Wedged in a crevasse, Tylor Kittredge drills holes for marker…



Wedged in a crevasse, Tylor Kittredge drills holes for marker pegs in an Alaskan glacier, February 1967.Photograph by Christopher Knight, National Geographic