Syracuse lab has already tested 1,000 Upstate NY samples for toxic algae

[USA] Gregory Boyer predicted a month ago that toxic algae blooms would “explode” in Upstate New York.

He’s been proven right already – and things are likely to get much worse.

As of last week, 39 lakes and ponds in New York state had outbreaks of blue-green algae, which is actually a form of bacteria. In Boyer’s lab at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, about 10 percent of the 1,050 samples tested positive for toxic blue-green algae. New samples are coming in every day.

The number of positive samples will likely skyrocket over the next couple of months, said Boyer, a biochemistry professor who runs the ESF lab, one of just three in New York that tests for the algae.

“They really peak in late August and early September,” Boyer said. “You have to wait for the water temperature to come up. Usually August is hot and still, and those are just ideal conditions.”

This year could be particularly bad for the blooms, he said, because Upstate New York’s wet spring and summer have washed nutrients into lakes that the algae thrive on. Those nutrients – primarily phosphorous – come from a variety of sources, from farm fertilizers to lawn fertilizers to goose droppings.

The blue-green algae presents two threats to humans, Boyer said. Some people are highly allergic to the algae itself, but the bigger concern are the toxins, called microcystins, that the algae produce. Those can cause liver damage in humans and can kill pets.

The toxins aren’t waste products, but appear to be a chemical that helps regulate the growth of the bacteria, Boyer said.

At the ESF lab, samples stream in daily from the college’s own sampling crews, and from residents participating in the state’s citizen sampling program that spans 120 lakes.

Labs at ESF and Stony Brook University run tests for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which alerts the public to the outbreaks via its website. A state lab in Albany does testing for the Department of Health, which monitors beaches, which can be closed during outbreaks.

It’s impossible to tell for sure if a bloom is toxic just by looking at it, so samples need to be tested in the laboratory. The equipment can be expensive: The unassuming fluoroprobe in the ESF lab, which resembles a small metal lathe, costs $35,000.

Boyer’s lab tries to get results to the DEC as quickly as possible, but can only process 40 samples a day. “It’s not uncommon for us to get more than 40 a day,” he said.

While the blooms can kill dogs and birds, fish seem resistant to the algae and their toxins, Boyer  said. When large blooms die off, however, their decomposition can suck oxygen out of the water and suffocate fish in the lower, cooler parts of lakes and ponds.

The blooms are increasing in number across the Great Lakes and the world, according to a research study by two Stony Brook University scientists. Three years ago, algal blooms shut down the city of Toledo’s drinking water system.

 

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