Algae blooms in Lake Erie contaminate water in Ohio and Michigan

More than 500,000 northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan residents remained without drinkable water Saturday evening as officials awaited test results from three different toxicity screenings. The water contamination was the result of algae blooms in Lake Erie, the area’s water source.

Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins would not put a time stamp on when those results might be available, saying he did not want to “burden science.”

Early Saturday morning, the city of Toledo posted an alert to its Facebook page, telling residents of Toledo and Lucas County, Ohio, not to drink tap water or boil it for drinking. The alerting said that toxic levels of microcysten — released by the algae blooms — were found in water at the Collins Park water-treatment plant. Within hours, Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared a state of emergency for Toledo and the surrounding areas, including Fulton County.

“I think this is a wake-up call,” U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said after meeting with an array of officials to discuss the emergency response Saturday afternoon. “We do have a problem with these toxic algal blooms” which affect both drinking water safety and Lake Erie’s fishing and tourism industries, he said.

The nearby city of Oregon, which also draws its water from Lake Erie, said that its water was safe during a testing at 2 p.m.

Workers at the city’s treatment plant told The Blade during an interview inside the plant’‍s laboratory Saturday that they started seeing suspicious results at the plant sometime later Friday. The first signs of algae toxins started appearing in early July, but they were not at high levels and they also were treatable, officials said.

Last summer, Toledo spent an an additional $3 million on chemicals to help protect the city's water supply from Lake Erie’s algae.

Algae blooms, often caused by the addition of nutrients to a water body, are made up of cyanobacteria, commonly called blue-green algae. The algae growth is fed by phosphorous mainly from farm fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plants, leaving behind toxins that have contributed to oxygen-deprived dead zones where fish can’t survive. 

Some cyanobacteria can produce toxins, called cyanotoxins. Although many blooms contain non-toxic species of cyanobacteria, lab tests are needed to determine whether a bloom is toxic or nontoxic. Some cyanotoxins can be toxic for humans, animals and plants. The health effects include nausea, vomiting, fever, rashes, and eye and ear irritation.

Shortly after the bulletin was put online at 2 a.m. Saturday, residents reported empty shelves in water aisles at local grocery stores and carryouts. Water that had been destined for other parts of the state was diverted to northwest Ohio so stores could restock. The National Guard trucked in water from Akron and Piqua, which is north of Dayton. Pre-mixed formula and military meals were delivered to Toledo from Columbus.

Restaurants in the affected area were urged to close unless they can guarantee no consumption of tap water. Bottled water shipments that were destined to other regions were rerouted to Toledo, said a spokesman for the Kroger supermarket chain, Jackie Siekmann.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had an emergency-response team on “standby” to respond to Toledo, but would not be dispatched until a gubernatorial request for aid was made, said Steve Fought, an aide to U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toldeo.

Joe Andrews, Ohio Department of Public Safety spokesman, said the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections had converted its milk-bottling plant near Columbus to package drinking water in large bladders.

David Grossman, director of the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, said a safe level of microcystin is 0, but an allowable level is below 1. At the Collins Park plant, water was testing as high as 2.5 parts per million, Dr. Grossman said. As long as the level remains below 20 parts per million, it is safe to shower and bathe. It is OK to drink well water.

Toledo-area hospitals report more than 100 people came to emergency departments by late afternoon concerned that they drank the water and were feeling ill. ER doctors report that some people came just as a precaution but others displayed symptoms such as upset stomach, dizziness and vomiting.

Toledo police did not report higher-than-usual call volumes; no major criminal complaints were lodged, although officers did respond to “disturbances” over bottled water and large crowds.

The mad dash for bottled water started early Saturday, forcing Toledo-area residents to search far and wide for drinkable water. People, on social media, reported driving as far as Ypsilanti, Mich., Lima, Ohio, and Angola, Ind.

In and around Toledo, the water crisis was digitally cataloged on social media with #emptyglasscity, which became a nationally trending topic before noontime. To document the random acts of kindness, the folks behind TedxToledo promoted the use of #fullglasscity. Each hashtag is a play on the city's nickname, Glass City.

Bowling Green State University sophomores Peter Funk and Aidan Hubbell-Staeble, and incoming St. John's Jesuit freshman Tyan Hubbell-Staeble bought 20 sports water bottles, six smaller plastic water bottles, five 5-gallon water containers and a giant cooler, filled them with water, and searched for a facility in need.

They found Henrietta Armstrong at Kitchen for the Poor. Ms. Armstrong called the act a “true blessing.”

“It was just a wonderful gesture,” said Harvey Savage Jr., executive director of Kitchen of the Poor, which serves about 200 people during a normal week. “We talk about all the young folks and how they are not doing good. Well, this is a great thing.”

The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Blade staff writers Tom Henry, Wynne Everett, Marlene Harris-Taylor, David Patch, Brian Buckey, and Marissa Medansky contributed to this report.

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