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MADISON — State and local public health and water quality officials advise that high temperatures typical of late July into August can spur the growth of blue-green algae blooms.
“August has typically been when we receive the most bloom reports because the water is usually the warmest and conditions most conducive to fueling algae growth.” says Gina LaLiberte, Department of Natural Resources research scientist and statewide blue-green algae coordinator.
Blue-green algae, technically known as Cyanobacteria, are microscopic organisms that are naturally present at low numbers in all Wisconsin lakes, streams and ponds. When conditions are favorable, usually in summer, the number of algae can increase dramatically, appearing as opaque, pea-soup-like water or forming colorful scums. Some algal species produce toxins that, when ingested or inhaled, can cause illness in people, pets, livestock and wildlife, according to LaLiberte.
Gastrointestinal upset from swallowing toxins in water and flu-like or asthma-like symptoms from inhaling algae in water droplets are the most common symptoms reported to the Wisconsin Harmful Algal Bloom Surveillance Program, according to Emmy Wollenburg, Outreach Specialist at the DHS.
“People may also experience rashes and hives from skin contact with blue-green algae, particularly if they are susceptible to other allergic reactions,” Wollenburg says.
The worst illnesses are usually seen in animals like dogs, which aren’t concerned about water quality and may swim in or drink from water with significant blue-green algae blooms, Wollenburg says. “Dogs also are at risk because they may ingest algae when they groom themselves after swimming, which is why it’s so important to rinse your pet with fresh clean water every time they swim in a lake, pond or river,” Wollenburg says.
When blue-green algae appear as scums on the surface of the water, pea-soup like water discoloration, or a paint-like sheen, this indicates impaired water quality, according to LaLiberte.
“A good rule of thumb for assessing algae levels is that if you walk into the water up to your knees – being careful not to kick up the bottom sediments — and you can see your feet, the risk from blue-green algae is low to moderate, but it’s still a good idea to avoid swallowing water,” LaLiberte says. “When you can’t see your feet, keep children and dogs out of the water, and consider having the whole family pursue another activity that day,” she says.
It’s also a good idea to always wash hands before eating, and wash off after swimming in any lake or and pond to reduce the chance of irritation or allergenic effects, LaLiberte says.
And people should not forget about pets that have been playing in the water, Wollenburg says. Rinse off pets with clean water to prevent them from ingesting blue-green algae accumulated on their fur.
“Dogs also are at risk because they may ingest algae when they groom themselves after swimming, which is why it’s so important to rinse your pet with fresh clean water every time they swim in a lake, pond or river,” Wollenburg says.
If a pet displays symptoms such as seizures, vomiting, or diarrhea after contact with surface water, contact a veterinarian right away.
People who think they are experiencing symptoms related to exposure to blue-green algae — stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, headache, fever, muscle weakness, difficulty breathing – should contact their doctor or the Wisconsin Poison Center at 800-222-1222.
To report illnesses that may be related to blue-green algae, contact the Department of Health Services at 608-266-1120, or fill out an online survey on its website. Go to www.dhs.wisconsin.gov and search for “blue-green algae”.
For information on blue-green algal blooms in Wisconsin, search the DNR website for blue-green algae.