Pea Soup: Algae Blooms, Cyanobacteria, and Other Nasty Things in the Water

by Ed R Published 2.17.2015

Given the fact that many of us are deep in the throes of “Old Man Winter” the following has probably been forgotten and is not currently on our radar—for now! The threat of what occurred last summer could again, and probably will be a reality.

close up of algae bloomPhoto Credit: Jeff Reutter

Last August something happened to us here on the north coast. Toledo, the fourth largest city in the state of Ohio, had to issue a “don’t drink or boil the water” alert. This affected some 400,000 people in and around the surrounding area for two days. The reason for this was that the city detected a high level of a substance called Microcystin-LR in the water. The cause of this substance was a very heavy algal bloom in the Western Basin. Lake Erie, you see, is the shallowest of the Great Lakes and is especially shallow in the Western Basin. The late spring was unusually wet, and then by mid-summer very dry. This made for a perfect combination for algae to grow. But that’s not the real reason why the algae took off. I forgot to mention that the western part of the state is heavily agricultural. You can guess what that means. In early spring farmers are preparing their fields and planting their crops, which involves adding nutrients to the soil to promote plant growth. We know this as “fertilizing.” Fertilizer primarily consists of three major components, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—NPK (the chemical symbol for potassium is K). That’s what the numbers stand for when you pick up a bag at the store. For example, 10-10-10 means it’s 10% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus and 10% potassium. Collectively these are termed “primary nutrients.” Of these, nitrogen and phosphorus are considered as the most significant for good plant growth. These same nutrients that promote crop growth also serve to promote algal growth.

When fields are fertilized (like in the early spring) and we have a heavy rainfall, some of the nutrients that aren’t absorbed by the soil can get washed off into streams and rivers which eventually end up in lakes. In dry periods, these nutrients concentrate (think evaporation). This has the effect of creating a “super juice” for algae to grow. If this occurs in the middle of the lake it’s not really a problem for us, but that’s another topic. But if this occurs near the intake to a water treatment plant, then it’s serious. Certain forms of algae can manufacture a class of compounds called “cyanotoxins.” A subclass of these are Microcystins. Microcystins have been found to pose a health concern for humans and animals. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a drinking water guideline of 1 ppb for Microcystin-LR. They have been found to affect the nervous system, the liver and the skin. These algal toxins can be in solution (soluble), associated with sediment or in the algae themselves, which makes treatment difficult.

Now I must note that agricultural run-off is not the only source of nutrients getting into our water supplies. There are others. But it has been identified as “point source.” A point source simply means that you can identify it as a causal factor. You can point at it. There are “non-point sources” which can also contribute but are hard to definitively identify. This is a complex problem and a complex subject. What I just wrote merely serves as an introduction. Much has been written about it, and it is the subject of intense study, corrective actions, and international involvement. For more in depth information go to the EPA’s web site.

In future blogs we’ll get into the nutrients themselves. As an aside, I have motored through this stuff, it’s just like pea soup. Talk about a “yuck” factor.

Contact Ed R.

Standards for Bottled Water vs. Standards for Tap Water

by Ed R Published 2.13.2014

“The elephant in the room” is probably one of the most overused phrases in the last several years. It is basically meant to call attention to an impending situation which we know is looming but choose to ignore in the hope that it goes away. A current example of this elephant is the overall health of our drinking water. A recently published report by the DWRF (Drinking Water Research Foundation) is a must read. Entitled “Microbial Health Risks of Regulated Drinking Waters in the United States”, this report provides a comparative assessment of health risks associated with drinking tap water vs. drinking bottled water. It was authored by Dr. Stephen Edberg of Yale University who is an internationally recognized expert in the field of public health especially as it pertains to water and water treatment. (I had the opportunity to meet him in 2002 at the World Health Organization symposium on HPC Bacteria in Drinking Water in Geneva, but that’s another story.) The purpose of Dr. Edberg’s report is to help educate the public with regard to the risk of contracting a waterborne illness from a public water supply by contrasting it to bottled water. It does so by focusing on the differences in the following areas: regulations, standards, monitoring, advisories and distribution. For those of you that are not going to read the report (although I urge you to, it’s actually a pretty quick read), here is the “CliffsNotes” version with some commentary at the end.

Read the full report

Regulations: Both public drinking water and bottled water are heavily regulated. Public drinking water is regulated by the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Bottled water is regulated by the FDA under The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) as it is considered a food product.

Standards: “Federal law requires that FDA’s regulations for bottled water must be at least as protective of public health as EPA standards for tap water.” Where these two differ is in microbial contaminants. EPA currently has no standards for total coliform or E. coli in source waters, only in finished water. In contrast, if a bottler is drawing water from a source other than a public water supply then both the source water and the finished water are subject to the standards.

Monitoring: It is in this section that the author shows the greatest discrepancy of the two. On a gallon for gallon basis the report shows that bottlers are required to test on a far greater frequency than public suppliers.

Advisories: What happens when the water fails to meet either EPA or FDA Microbiological Standards? Under the SDWA this typically involves issuance of a “Boil Alert”. Two things trigger a boil alert, 1.) Detection of E. coli or any other pathogenic organism, 2.) Loss of system pressure, such as in the case of a water main break. Under the FDA Standards, contaminated water is prohibited from entering the food supply, and is subject to a recall. Public notification in both cases is required.

Distribution: Bottled water is processed, monitored, packaged under sanitary conditions, held and transported with no further outside influence of potential contamination. Tap water is processed, monitored, disinfected and delivered to consumers through a system of underground piping. (You should start to see the elephant now.)

Throughout this report the author purposely calls attention to the differences in the two most common forms of water used for human consumption, with the goal of pointing out to the reader where the source of the problem lies…the distribution system elephant. It’s not at the water treatment plant that we have a problem. The personnel there do a fantastic job of taking water from all kinds of sources and qualities to provide us with a clean, abundant and safe supply. Many of us absolutely take it for granted. When we turn on the tap we expect clear, cold, clean water and we expect it now. The report addresses some of the causal factors for the loss of quality as it pertains to the distribution system, things like source protection, cross connection, backflow prevention, and leaks. Let’s face it; some of the pipes have been in the ground for a hundred years. All of this is considered infrastructure. Numerous reports have identified the need to repair and replace our aging Infrastructure. So why are we ignoring it? There are only 300-500 billion reasons. You guessed it, dollars. But, there may be an alternative solution, and mark my words, you will be hearing more about it, it’s the final barrier concept. Take some time to read the report; it’s not too long or too technical.

Contact Ed R.

The Better Water Blog 1-Year Anniversary

by Kinetico Published 7.1.2013

Illustration of a tablet showing the blog, and a half-eaten slice of birthday cake

Time really does fly when you're having fun, doesn't it? Over the last year, we have tried to bring you posts that help you understand, value and respect life's most vital resource: water. We know some of you have been with us from the very beginning, and we're really grateful for that. But for those of you who are new to the Better Water Blog, here are some posts you could start with from this time last year.

Why are Boil Water Alerts So Important?

By Cathy J in The Science of Water

Have you ever had a Boil Water Alert (BWA) issued in your area? These public warnings can be worrisome if you've never heard them before. You may ask yourself, "Is my water really safe?" Cathy answers some common questions about BWA's in this informative first-ever Better Water Blog post.

How a Water Softener Works—Mystery Solved!

By Stuart P in Water Treatment Technology

Stuart's fascinating, lighthearted post clears up some of the mystery behind water softeners. Even if you already know all there is to know about ion exchange, water softeners, soap curds and electrons, you'll enjoy the fun, straightforward video presentation where we get to see how water softening works close-up, featuring Mr. Resin Bead! 

We All Have Our "Just In Case"...Mine Has To Do With My Drinking Water

By Keith B in Water in the News

Keith explains a few of the reasons why he and millions of others rely on reverse osmosis filtration for drinking and cooking water. "Better safe than sorry" is his philosophy as he illuminates some of the effects that fracking and PPCP's (Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products) might have on your water.

Why are boil water alerts so important?

by Cathy J Published 6.8.2012

A boil water alert (BWA) is issued when there is a threat of disease causing microorganisms such as Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium eDrinking Cautionntering a water system. Contamination can be caused by several different factors, most commonly due to water main breaks or severe flooding which might allow the possibility of foreign substances to enter the water system.  In less common instances a BWA can be issued when there is a significant change in the turbidity reading. A BWA is issued after careful consideration among representatives from public health, regulatory agencies and municipal departments. 

When there is a BWA, it will be broadcast on the local news (radio, television, web) with instructions on what to do and how long it will last. 

The best way to make sure your water is safe for drinking, cooking or brushing your teeth is to boil your water.  To effectively kill the disease causing organisms, boil the water for at least one to five minutes.  Allow water to cool before use.  The water will taste “flat” but will be safe to use.  If you are unable to boil your water, you can use bleach or iodine.  Bleach will kill some, but not all, types of disease-causing organisms that may be in the water.  Add 1/8 teaspoon of regular, unscented, liquid household bleach for each gallon of water, stir it well and let it stand for 30 minutes before you use it. Store disinfected or boiled water in clean, air-tight containers with covers in the refrigerator. 

Hot (not boiled) soapy water will be sufficient for dishwashing and surface cleaning.  As a precaution, add one tablespoon of bleach per gallon. Unless specifically list in the BWA, laundry water and water for showering does not need to be treated.

Boil alerts are mostly for city and community water supplies.  If you have a well, you would want to boil your water after severe flooding or if your well pressure drops to almost non-existent (indicating a potential problem).  After correcting the problem or when the water recedes, it is recommended that you have your water tested by your local EPA certified laboratory to make sure it is safe to drink.

For a list of local certified laboratories or more information on safe drinking water, a very informative, reliable source is the EPA. 


Contact Cathy J.

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