Why are HABs Getting so much Attention?

Why are HABs Getting So Much Attention?

What are these HABs that everyone cares about?

An algal bloom is a proliferation of cyanobacteria and algal cells in dense concentrations. Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic bacteria found on the surface of water bodies. These cyanobacteria can contain toxins that produce detrimental effects for humans and other animals, including Microcystins, a liver toxin, Anatoxins, a nerve toxin that is potentially fatal to dogs and Lipopolysacharides, an endotoxin that results in skin irritation.

According to NYS DEC’s Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) web page:

“Most algae are harmless and are an important part of the food web. Certain types of algae can grow quickly and form blooms, which can cover all or portions of a lake. Even large blooms are not necessarily harmful. However some species of algae can produce toxins that can be harmful to people and animals. Blooms of algal species that can produce toxins are referred to as harmful algal blooms (HABs). HABs usually occur in nutrient-rich waters, particularly during hot, calm weather.”

You can expose yourself to HABs through consumption through drinking water or incidental swallowing while recreating in a HABs infected body of water, inhalationof sprays and/or aerosols created during household use or recreation and dermal exposure, skin contact during waterfront recreation activities like swimming and/or fishing. 

The symptoms of HABs exposure include: stomach or liver illness, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting; skin, eye or throat irritation, allergic reactions on the skin, respiratory problems and even negative neurological effects. 

Not only are there human consequences to the spread of HABs, there are also negative environmental impacts. The toxins in HABs are eaten by small fish and shellfish and easily ascend up the food chain hurt larger animals like sea lions, turtles, dolphins, birds and manatees. The bacteria in a harmful algal bloom is alive and must respire to keep growing. HABs live at the surface of the water and get first grabs of any sunlight and oxygen, the tools that HABs need to grow. Aerobic respiration by bacteria (HABs) can deplete the dissolved oxygen that other aquatic organisms need to survive. This phenomenon is called hypoxia or a dead zone. Once a body of water becomes a hypoxic area, all aquatic animals must either migrate away or they die. Currently, there are 166 coastal hypoxic dead zones in the U.S. HABs are a danger to aquatic life because they block out the sunlight, consume all the dissolved oxygen and can even clog up the gills of fish.

Aside from bodily and environmental costs, HABs infestations have negative economic effects. Bodies of water can lead to property development, recreation and tourism. When these water bodies are corrupted by HABs, all recreational activities around them, fishing, bathing, swimming and more, stop. This can reduce tourism and property values in the surrounding area. Clean water can raise the value of a nearby home by up to 25 percent, but “waterfront property values can decline because of the unpleasant sight and odor of algal blooms.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “The tourism industry loses close to $1 billion each year, mostly through losses in fishing and boating activities, as a result of water bodies that have been affected by nutrient pollution and harmful algal blooms.”

The following statistics were included in the press release of Governor Cuomo’s 4-Point Initiative:

  • In 2015, DOH documented an estimated 35 HAB-associated illness cases in 16 New York counties, all associated with exposure during recreational activities like swimming and boating.

  • In 2016, drinking water for more than 40,000 people in Cayuga County was impacted when HABs-related toxins were detected in finished drinking water for the first time.

  • In 2017, more than 100 beaches were closed for at least part of the summer due to HABs, and Skaneateles Lake, the source of unfiltered drinking water for several communities including the city of Syracuse, was threatened by algal blooms for the first time.

In conclusion, HABs are receiving attention from the government and from the public because they have direct human, environmental and economic consequences.

Reducing exposure to HABs: Reducing you and your family exposure to HABs NYS DEC