Because photosynthetic organisms are the energetic foundation of our biosphere, we always tend to think of them as allies, organisms with a positive connotation. Their trademark color green is universally linked with goodness, growth, and life. However, there are some bad apples in the bunch that just seem to have it out for us heterotrophs. Well, maybe not apples (though I’m sure there are some poisonous apples out there somewhere*), but nature is filled with examples of poisonous plants. Many toxins and pharmaceuticals have botanical origins.
The focus of today’s blog post sinks even lower- algae, pond scum, cyanobacteria. Most of these aquatic photosynthesizers quietly convert sunlight to biochemical energy without any ill effects to anyone. I’ve written previously, that under the right conditions (warm and nutrient-rich waters) these otherwise inconspicuous organisms bloom in great numbers and overwhelm their environments. Like all life on earth, algae are programmed to capitalize on favorable conditions for reproduction. The ultimate crashes of these blooms can result in aquatic dead zones, areas with dissolved oxygen levels too low to support life.**
However, in some cases, the effects of these algal ‘blooms’ go beyond sheer numbers. Some algae produce toxins which cause serious health problems for those of us heterotrophs sharing their environment. The individual constituents of these ‘harmful algal blooms’ (HABs) measure in at ~1-2 µm, but they can wreak all kinds of havoc on the scale of large cities. HABs can stop your summer fun by forcing beaches to close or eliminating certain shellfish from your diet, but this summer the problems went beyond recreation to something much more fundamental- potable water.
Clean, safe drinking water is a fundamental service of human civilization. In our modern society, just turn on the tap, cook, clean, bathe, drink. It has been such a staple of American cities that it is taken for granted. That is, until it’s no longer available. That was the exact situation in Toledo earlier this month. A large American city, in the year 2014, was without safe drinking water for a whole weekend. Approximately, 500,000 citizens were affected. All because of toxic algae.
In this case, the culprit was a bloom of cyanobacteria which produce the toxin microcystin. This molecule is harmful to the health of humans, pets and wildlife by acting as a liver toxin. It also has neurotoxic effects. The toxicity of microcystins has been extensively characterized and long-known to be associated with certain cyanobacterial species. Because of the potential adverse effects of microcystin-producing cyanobacteria on modern water supplies, treatment facilities routinely check the levels of this toxin. Only one part per billion of this molecule is considered acceptable. When a microcystin-producing algal bloom occurs near the intake of a municipal water supply (as it did for Toledo this month) the facilities can quickly be overwhelmed causing the water supply to exceed acceptable microcystin levels. The situation is compounded by the fact that microcystins are resistant to boiling. While boiling water may destroy other toxins or contaminating bacteria, it only concentrates microcystins. In order to bring the toxin levels down, the problem must be addressed at the water treatment facility (using methods like activated carbon, ozone treatment and membrane filtration). By adjusting the normal procedures to account for increased microcystins, the water supply can be treated to once again safe levels. All of this is accompanied by exhaustive analysis of microcystin levels and vigilant monitoring after the incident.
Scientists and government agencies are always working to monitor our water systems for HABs. Check out some of the links below for descriptions of continuous efforts to monitor our environment for HABs. How do we get to the point of 500,000 people without water for a weekend with everyone watching out for it? I mean, we’re watching it from space! Even with all of these sophisticated tools and models, nature can be surprisingly swift. Check out these images and reports from the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab on Aug 1, 2014 and Aug 4, 2014 showing false-colored images tracking the algal growth.
Simultaneously in the news cycle with the Toledo water crisis, two Ebola patients were being treated in premier isolation facilities on American soil. The nation’s attention was rapt with the details of their treatment and speculation was rampant as to the possibility of an outbreak in America (an infinitesimally small probability not worth talking seriously about among scientists and epidemiological experts, but a great ratings-driver). Worldwide, the Ebola death-toll numbers in the thousands, not just from this year, but ever. Based on pure body count, there are many deadlier infectious diseases, which we as the public dismiss more easily. Beyond those numbers, the lack of clean water for drinking, food preparation and sanitation results in the deaths of ~3 million people every year across the globe. A safe and reliable water supply, as a basic right, continues to elude human civilization.
HABs are only a part of the world’s water problem. However, the disruption of Toledo’s water supply should have been an event that caught our attention and held it for a while longer. It may be easy to turn on the tap, but getting the clean water to that point takes a significant amount of effort with infrastructure maintenance, monitoring and treatment. All of these things are largely invisible to us in modern society. Unfortunately, all of these things are affected by other societal choices like economics, aesthetics, environmental regulations, and the practices of our agricultural systems and other industries. As a society, we should start having the longer, difficult conversations necessary to attack this complicated problem rather than the transient chats that occur when we are in crisis mode. Find out about your community’s water situation and the issues related to your supply. Talk to your community leaders today to ensure that safe water is part of your future.
*Hey, it’s hard to transition away from the summer’s Disney theme completely in a single post. However, I’m not just talking about the evil queen’s poisoned apple from the fairy tale. Apples have a huge amount of genetic diversity and I’m sure there are some varieties out there that are poisonous or so foul-tasting that you would think they are. After all, apples concentrate toxic substances in their seeds.
**In case you’re wondering, this year’s Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone measured ~5500 square miles. That’s not breaking any records for size, but still about as large as the state of Connecticut. Read more about it here.
References and Links: