With summer fast approaching, officials warn the public about the potential health risks posed by blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), which are known to bloom in both fresh and salty bodies of water during the season.
In Minnesota, experts believe blue-green algae blooms could come earlier this year as temperatures have remained high even before the start of summer. The state's health department has cautioned people about the dangers of getting exposed to contaminated waters.
Stephanie Gretsch, an epidemiologist working for the health department, said that they have looked into two cases of blue-green algae-related illnesses in humans last year. They have also recorded two cases of dog deaths caused by exposure to the microorganism in 2015 and three cases in 2014.
Gretsch pointed out that they typically see the blue-green algae blooms in their worst only during the latter part of summer. However, they have detected mild blooms during spring and during warm days this month, which means the microorganisms may have already spread to different lakes in the state.
While most other algae species are integral to the health of bodies of water, blue-green algae are considered to be particularly devastating as they are highly toxic to both humans and animals, especially when ingested in large amounts.
According to the Minnesota health department's advisory, these photosynthetic bacteria can often turn pristine lakes into giant pea soups or "floating mats of scum."
Gretsch said people will be able to identify blue-green algae because of the musty, sulfurous odor they usually give off. They should stay clear if they happen to smell this particular stench.
It may be easy to spot blooms in the water based on their color or smell but as Gretsch puts it, this does not indicate just how toxic they could be.
Blue-green algae are known to produce different kinds of toxins. In Minnesota, blooms often pollute lakes with microcystin. These toxins can remain in the water even when the blooms begin to die off.
People who are exposed to such toxins typically develop symptoms, which Gretsch says can be "mild and nonspecific." These could include headaches, coughs, rashes and eye irritation.
These toxins can also be very potent on animals as well. Even healthy animals can lose their strength and fall ill once they are exposed to the microorganisms.
Gretsch added that there are currently no known cures for blue-green algae toxins. Affected individuals and animals are only given supportive care and treatment.
Photo: Mark Sadowski | Flickr