Florida Department of Health issues toxic algae alert for Lake Washington

Florida health officials are warning not to swim, wade, boat or eat fish from Lake Washington, or let your dog sip the water.

The Florida Department of Health in Brevard issued a health alert on Monday about harmful blue-green algae toxins in Lake Washington, after samples were taken in March. 23 found the toxin microcystin present in the lake, at 0.3 micrograms per litre.

“The public should exercise caution in and around central Lake Washington,” the Health Department’s alert reads.

Lake Washington is the main source of drinking water for over 170,000 people served by Melbourne’s city water system. But health officials have said toxin levels in the algae are so low that there is no risk to water patrons.

The alert has nothing to do with drinking water, said Cynthia Leckey, director of environmental health for the Brevard County Health Department.

The public should, however, exercise caution in and around Lake Washington, an outcrop of the slow-flowing St. Johns River.

Microcystin is a toxin produced by certain species of blue-green algae. The toxin is linked to short- and long-term health risks, such as liver disease and cancer. The toxin cut off Toledo, Ohio’s water supply for a few days in 2014. The algae typically blooms in central and southern Florida and is toxic to fish, plants, invertebrates and mammals, including humans.

It typically blooms in Lake Washington during the hot summer months, but warmer-than-usual temperatures this year may have favored algae species that emit the toxin.

The alert will be lifted as soon as follow-up water tests show the lake is free of toxins, health officials said.

Based on studies of its toxicity in mice, the World Health Organization in 1998 established a guideline of 1 microgram per liter for microcystin toxins in drinking water and a tolerable daily intake of 0. 04 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day for toxins in contaminated seafood.

Health officials issued a similar alert for Lake Washington in January.

Green algae pollutes Lake Washington

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Bright green algae also coated the waters near the shores of the lake in July 2019. The algae was so thick at the time that it changed the way the city sanitizes its water, leading to around 60 customer complaints regarding a strange odor in drinking water.

Excess algae has become a plague every summer for many Florida lakes, including Lake Washington. The rains bring leftover fertilizer, leaky septic and sewage systems, and sewage sludge applied to the land to fuel algal blooms, which are sometimes toxic. Warm temperatures further fuel algae growth.

Water issues are complicated by poor Lake Washington conditions this summer. The lake was posted with signs this week, warning of potentially toxic algae.

The lake has been plagued by blue-green algae blooms. According to biologists, nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, leaking sewage systems and other sources can fuel excessive algae growth, especially during the hottest summer months.

Winter and spring rains and record summer heat have helped set the stage for algae growth in the lake this month. The rains draw on nitrogen and phosphorus from the earth. Both of these nutrients come from agricultural and residential fertilizers, leaky sewage systems, and municipal sewage sludge applied to the land.

Some recent research by the St. Johns River Water Management District indicates that the land application of biosolids – the sludge left over from the sewage treatment process – is a source of increased phosphates helping to feed the Algal bloom in Lake Washington and other east central Florida lakes. .

Watch out for blue-green algae blooms in Lake Washington

  • Health officials said Monday that the public should take the following precautions:
  • Do not drink, swim, wade, use a personal watercraft, water ski or boat in waters where there is visible bloom.
  • Wash your skin and clothes with soap and water if you come into contact with algae or discolored or smelly water.
  • Keep pets away from the area.
  • Do not cook or clean dishes with water contaminated with algae blooms. Boiling water will not remove toxins.
  • Eating fillets of healthy fish caught in freshwater lakes that experience blooms is safe.
  • Rinse the fish fillets with tap or bottled water, discard the casings and cook the fish thoroughly.
  • Do not eat shellfish in waters with algal blooms.

What is blue-green algae?

  • A type of bacteria common in Florida’s freshwater environments. A bloom occurs when the rapid growth of algae causes an accumulation of individual cells that discolor the water and often produce floating mats that emit unpleasant odors.
  • Sunny days, warm, still water, and excess nutrients contribute to flowering, which can appear year-round but is most common in summer and fall.

Is it harmful?

  • Blue-green algae can impact human health and ecosystems, including fish and other aquatic animals.
  • For more information on the potential health effects of algal blooms, visit floridahealth.gov/environmental-health/aquatic-toxins.
  • For up-to-date information on Florida water quality and public health notifications regarding harmful algae, visit ProtectingFloridaTogether.gov.

What to do if you see an algae bloom?

  • The Florida Department of Environmental Protection collects and analyzes algal bloom samples. To report a bloom, call the toll-free hotline at 855-305-3903.
  • Report killed fish to 1-800-636-0511.
  • Report symptoms of exposure to harmful algal blooms or any aquatic toxins to the Florida Poison Information Center at 1-800-222-1222 to speak to a poison specialist immediately.
  • Contact your veterinarian if your pet has become ill after consuming or coming into contact with water contaminated with blue-green algae.
  • For more information, call the Florida Department of Health in Brevard at 321-633-2100.

Jim Waymer is an environmental reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Waymer at 321-261-5903 or jwaymer@floridatoday.com. Or find him on Twitter: @JWayEnviro or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jim.waymer

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