Algae can be anywhere from a pond scum that can be toxic, to a healing agent to a potential mass extinction killer. Algae offers many different sides but do avoid it if it is in water near you

Concerns About Algae

By —— Bio and Archives--December 29, 2017

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Concerns About Algae
Algae is sickening people, killing animals and hammering the economy.  The scourge is escalating from occasional nuisance to severe, widespread hazard, overwhelming government efforts to curb a leading cause: fertilizer runoff from farms. 1

Pungent, sometimes toxic blobs are fouling waterways from the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay, from the Snake River in Idaho to New York’s Finger Lakes and reservoirs in California’s Central Valley. Tourism and recreation have suffered. An international water skiing festival in Milwaukee was canceled in August; scores of swimming areas were closed nationwide.

The EPA says indirect runoff from agriculture and other sources, such as urban lawns, is now the biggest source of US water pollution. But a loophole in the Clean Water Act of 1972 prevents the government from regulating runoff as it does pollution from sewage plants and factories that release waste directly into waterways. They are required to get permits requiring treatment and limiting discharges, and violators can be fined or imprisoned. Those rules don’t apply to farm fertilizers that wash into streams and lakes when it rains. Congress has shown no inclination to change that. Government agencies have spent billions of dollars and produced countless studies on the problem. But an Associated Press investigation showed little for the efforts. Drinking water is also being affected, and significant efforts being taken on both federal and local levels to halt the risks are failing to solve the problem.1

Algae are microscopic plants which contain chlorophyll and live floating or suspended in water. They may also be attached to structures, rocks or other submerged surfaces. They are food for fish and small aquatic animals. Excess algae growth can impart tastes and odors to potable water. Algae produce oxygen during sunlight hours and use oxygen during the night hours. Their biological activities appreciably affect the pH and dissolved oxygen of the water. 2

Health Issues

The health implications are many and profound. Algae’s sickening effects plague those who enter the tainted waters, and even those who remain near it for too long. And for water sources that contribute to drinking water, even after being run through filtration plants, nearby populations can be sickened as well. Another troubling fact is that the CDC says that boiling water does not remove algae toxins and can increase the amount of toxin in the water. 2


When algae formations are found to be toxic they often contain the toxin ‘microcystin’ which can cause nausea, fever, and liver damage in humans and kill animals. And when blooms aren’t toxic, they can turn water ugly shades of green or other colors, stink like rotten vegetables, foul beaches and kill fish by sucking oxygen from the water as they decompose. The CDC reports that exposure can result in symptoms that affect the skin, stomach and intestines, lungs and nervous system.

In November 2017, as a result of drinking water tainted with algae from Lake Erie more than 100 residents of Toledo, Ohio were sickened. Florida’s Lake Okeechobee affected nearby beaches last year, prompting the governor to issue a state of emergency, and in Utah, more than 100 people were sickened after swimming in the state’s largest freshwater lake. 2

Lake Taihu, in China’s rapidly developing Yangtze River Delta, suffers thick blooms of microsystin from March through November. More than 40 million people live in Taihu’s watershed, and 10 million rely on the lake for their drinking water. Thirty years ago the lake was relatively clean, not so today. In 2007 the water supply for the lakeside city of Wuxi, then home to more than 2 million people was disrupted for a full week because of microcystin contamination. 3

Researchers are studying a potential link between ALS and a neurotoxin called BMAA (beta-methylamino-L-alanine), found in algae blooms. The body of research on environmental factors and neurological disease is growing, but is still a small subset of studies. ALS researcher Paul Cox says this group is one of the first to argue that environments pull the trigger on ALS.4

Besides ALS, other neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s are also under investigation for links to algae blooms. The stakes are so high that 21 research teams from 11 countries are now investigating the potential dangers of BMAA. 5

Continued below...

A Healing Agent?

In spite of all the bad stuff mentioned above, research shows that green algae, and genetically tweaked yeast, can churn out proteins that are cheaper and better tailored for human use than those made by traditional systems. 6

Blue-green algae, more accurately called Cyanobacteria, are now popular dietary supplements. There are many kinds of algae, and though Cyanobacteria were once grouped with true algae by biologists, they are now recognized as a separate phylum. They contain protein, some vitamins and minerals, and other compounds. The claims made for blue-green algae supplements are limitless—they are said to be nutritionally superior to ordinary food, and medicinally superior to drugs 7

When Stanford scientists injected massive doses of Cyanobacteria into the hearts of those who suffered the equivalent of a ‘widow-maker’ heart attack, oxygen levels ballooned by a factor of 25. The lowly bacteria are capable of producing something in a stricken heart desperately needs: oxygen. 8

A Mass Extinction Killer?

Super volcanoes and cosmic impacts get all the terrible glory for causing mass extinctions, but a new theory suggests lowly algae may be the killer behind the world’s great species annihilations. 9

Clemson University researchers think the same thing happened during the five largest mass extinctions in Earth’s history. Each time a large die-off occurred, they found a spike in the number of fossil algae mats, called stromatolites, strewn around the planet.


Researchers speculate that as the nutrient-rich fallout from a disaster lands in the water, it becomes food for algae. They explode in population, releasing chemicals that can act as anything from skin irritants to potent neurotoxins. Plants on land can pick up the compounds in their roots and pass them on to herbivorous animals. 9

If the theory is correct, it answers a lot of questions about how species died off in the ancient world. It also raises concerns for how today’s algae may damage the ecosystem in a warmer world.

So there you have it—algae can be anywhere from a pond scum that can be toxic, to a healing agent to a potential mass extinction killer. Algae offers many different sides but do avoid it if it is in water near you.


  1. John Flesher and Angeliki Kastanis, “Toxic algae: once a nuisance, now a severe nationwide threat,” apnews.com, November 16, 2017
  2. Erik Lief, “As algae flourishes nationwide, so do health concerns,” acsh.org, November 17, 2017
  3. Sharon Levy, Mocrocystin rising: why phosphorus reduction isn’t enough to stop CyanoHABs,” Environmental Health Perspectives, February 2015
  4. Ella Nilsen, “Scientists investigating potential link between toxic cyanobacteria and ALS,” concordmonitor.com, April 17, 2016
  5. Kathleen McAuliffe, “There’s something in the water,” Discover, May 2011
  6. Amber Dance, “From pond scum to pharmacy shelf,” Nature Medicine, February 2010
  7. “From pond scum to cure-all,” Wellness Letter, September 2010
  8. Melissa Healy, “How oxygen producing pond scum could save your life after a heart attack,” LA Times, June 14, 2017
  9. “Killer algae a key player in mass extinctions,” scientificcomputing.com, October 21, 2009

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Jack Dini -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Jack Dini is author of Challenging Environmental Mythology.  He has also written for American Council on Science and Health, Environment & Climate News, and Hawaii Reporter.

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