Deaths of dogs linked to a toxic bacteria known as blue green algae have recently received widespread national attention, but state officials say they’ve had fewer reports of those blooms this year.
People in recent years have been reporting more instances of blue-green algae to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which could be a result of hot, dry summers and increased nitrogen and phosphorous in the water from things like wastewater and fertilizer runoff, said Water Quality Monitoring Section Chief Lynn Milberg.
This year, there have been fewer reports, and they started coming in a month later than they normally do, Milberg said. A wet spring and summer could also mean there are fewer blooms, she said.
Despite its name, blue-green algae isn’t algae. It’s a collection of cyanobacteria that can release toxins that can poison animals and humans. The bacteria thrive in standing or slow-moving water with high levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous.
Poisoning often comes from being in water polluted with cyanobacteria, and dogs and other animals are more susceptible to it than humans because they take on more water while they’re playing, Milberg said. They also carry the toxins on their fur when they leave the water, and can ingest it when they lick their fur, she said. If an animal comes in contact with contaminated water, it should be washed off with clean water immediately, she said.
For humans, symptoms can include a skin rash, vomiting and even temporary paralysis. The most severe cases come when large amounts of contaminated water is ingested, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Poisoning is often fatal for animals, and people should contact a veterinarian immediately if they suspect their animal has been in contact with contaminated water, Milberg said.
This year, rains and flooding likely washed out some of the nutrients that would have caused cyanobacteria blooms. Farmers may also be spreading less fertilizer this year if their fields were underwater or wet and couldn’t be planted, Milberg said. Blooms are still possible, and have been reported in all parts of the state, so people should still be aware of how their water looks, she said.
Telling the difference between regular algae and cyanobacteria can be difficult, Milberg said. Cyanobacteria is often a bright lime green or bluish green, but can be other colors. It often looks more like spilled paint or pea soup swirling in the water than an algae bloom sitting on the surface, she said.
Missourians shouldn’t be afraid to visit their favorite bodies of water, Milberg said. People just need to be aware of their surroundings and be cautious if they see anything that looks out of the ordinary, she said.
“When in doubt, stay out,” she said.
The Department of Natural Resources has an online form people can fill out if they suspect they’ve seen a cyanobacteria bloom, and they can also report sightings by phone at DNR’s Environmental ResponseSpill Line: 573-634-2436 or the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services' Public Health Emergency Hotline: 800-392-0272.
There is also a mobile app called BloomWatch where people can report sightings, and the department will be notified of those reports, Milberg said.