Website warns of toxic lakes

A long holiday weekend usually comes with the promise of food on the grill, a friendly game of cornhole and maybe a dip in a local lake to escape the summer heat.

Before diving in headfirst, Ohioans should check for health advisories stemming from bacteria, harmful algal blooms and toxins, health officials say.

The Ohio Department of Health updated its BeachGuard website right before Memorial Day weekend to include not only bacterial contamination alerts, but also alerts for algal blooms and toxins. During previous “swim seasons,” BeachGuard only showed alerts for bacterial contamination, most of which stemmed from E. coli.

As of Friday, 25 advisories had been issued across the state, five of which were for algal toxins — the most-severe advisory. Many of the bacteria advisories fall on Lake Erie beaches, especially those around Cleveland. Buckeye Lake had two separate advisories for toxins, and the Ohio Department of Health advises people to avoid all contact with the water because of the microcystin levels.

This week, the number of advisories statewide has fluctuated from the teens to nearly 40.

Earlier this week, Buckeye Lake tested positive for 26 micrograms of microcystin per liter of water, about 20 micrograms more than deemed safe by the EPA.

A toxin that results from the decomposition of blue-green algae, microcystin can cause flu-like symptoms and itchiness on contact.

James Lee, spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said blue-green algae is common in Ohio. Blue-green algae grows when cyanobacteria gets a chance to photosynthesize in an area with high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus, often from fertilizer runoff from farm fields.

The EPA helps test some recreational waters for bacteria and harmful toxins, Lee said, doing 10 to 15 tests a week. Samples are collected by the local agency in charge of the lake or river and sent into labs for testing.

“It’s a partnership between (the Ohio Department of) Health and the EPA, so we have the best science behind it,” said Bethany McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Division of Natural Resources.

If the samples test positive, McCorkle said, park crews put up signs around the area alerting swimmers of the conditions.

“We wouldn’t close our beaches, but we would want people to have as much info as possible,” she said.

Though many advisories have been issued this week, McCorkle said she doesn’t expect to see a decrease in attendance at public parks this weekend.

With weekend travelers expected to come out in force, state EPA and health officials had some advice for swimmers.

“It’s important that people be mindful,” Lee said. “If they have doubt, then they should stay out of the water.”

Phillips added that swimmers should avoid water with unclear surfaces or water that looks like spilled paint.

Never swallow lake or river water and make sure to rinse off after going in, Lee said.

“I would say people should have fun on the water, but be aware of the water they’re going into,” said Gene Phillips, chief of the the health department’s Bureau of Environmental Health and Radiation Protection.

To check out the water quality before going in, check out the BeachGuard website at odh.ohio.gov/healthybeaches.

@emilybohatch

ebohatch@dispatch.com

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