Blue-Green Algae and Recreational Waters: Potential Public Health Concerns and Management Options

By Graul, Matt; Tuden, Becky | Parks & Recreation, July 2017 | Go to article overview

Blue-Green Algae and Recreational Waters: Potential Public Health Concerns and Management Options


Graul, Matt, Tuden, Becky, Parks & Recreation


In the San Francisco Bay area, a bounty of waterfront recreation is found east of the bay. More than 25 million visitors annually enjoy fishing, kayaking and swimming throughout the East Bay in nine large bodies of water managed by the East Bay Regional Park District. However, the effects of climate change have besieged these areas in recent years: warmer temperatures and extreme changes in weather have contributed to the length and frequency of blue-green algae blooms in our recreational waters.

Blue-green algae (also called cyanobacteria) are natural organisms that are present in almost all freshwater streams, rivers and lakes. They can also be found in estuarine and marine waters. In some cases, these algae blooms may contain toxins, which, when released, can affect people and animals, either through contact with or ingestion of the toxins. Thick mats of this algae, often composed of dead algae cells, can create layers of "scum" that tend to contain the highest levels of toxin.

Warmer temperatures, increased nutrient deposition, poor circulation and low water levels have led to an increase in cyanotoxin algae blooms throughout the United States in the last decade. According to Ana Alvarez, deputy general manager for the East Bay Regional Park District, "With the rising temperatures and extended drought conditions, new to Northern California, public parklands and park users are struggling to mitigate the effects from a changing climate."

The East Bay Regional Park District had its first recorded blue-green algae bloom in 2014. Around the country, microcystin, cylindrospermopsin, anatoxins and saxitoxins are the cyanotoxins most commonly found and each can have different health outcomes. Microcystins, for example, primarily affect the liver (hepatoxin) but can also affect the kidney and reproductive system: anatoxins are neurotoxins that affect the central nervous system. Exposure to toxic algae can result in rashes, skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, gastrointestinal problems, and, at high doses, serious illness or death. The effects of long-term exposure are not fully known, but children and pets are at the greatest risk. Dogs are particularly vulnerable when they lick the algae off their fur after a swim. …

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