Department of Ecology News Release - October 5, 2012

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Toxic blue-green algae blooms reported in Spokane/ Columbia counties

SPOKANE - Those intrepid swimmers who are tempted to jump into the lake despite the cooler air this weekend should be extra careful not to swim into toxic blue-green algae blooms. The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) has received confirmed reports of the toxic blooms in Lake Spokane and the Snake River, but blooms could exist elsewhere that have not yet been reported.

People who live near or visit lakes should keep children and animals away from potentially toxic blooms of blue-green algae.

Columbia County Health Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have identified a toxic bloom of algae along the Snake River behind Little Goose Dam that is producing high levels of the toxin, microcystin. Even higher levels have been reported in upper Lake Spokane, between Suncrest and Nine Mile.

When an algal species reproduces rapidly and reaches high concentrations, it is called an algae bloom. The algae blooms show up every year in many of our lakes and even rivers, more often in late summer or early fall when the water is warm, sunshine is abundant and the weather is calm. Only laboratory tests can confirm whether a bloom is toxic or non-toxic.

Here is what to look for: Blue-green algae cells are very small and they don't clump together, although they can look like a mat. For this reason, they are hard to pick up or hold. In calm weather, the paint-like scum forms on the water surface. It can be either bright green or blue-green. (It is NOT stringy strands.) If the weather turns windy, the algae will be mixed in the water, making it look like pea soup. Blue-green blooms can float to the surface of the water and be several inches thick near the shoreline.

People and pets may become ill after contact with water such as swimming in lakes with toxic blue-green algae, according to the Washington State Department of Health. State health officials say, "When in doubt, stay out."

Symptoms that people might experience include stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and skin rashes. Exposure to nerve toxins can cause weakness, loss of muscle coordination, difficulty in swallowing, labored respiration, or tingling lips.

The public can report any suspected algae bloom to the state by going online (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/reportaproblem.html) on Ecology's website, or by calling 800-OILS-911. (The number also is used for reporting oil spills.)

You can also learn more about lake algae and sign up to receive emails about lake algae blooms by visiting Ecology's Freshwater Algae Control Program Web.

To learn more about what you can do to keep our waters clean, visit Ecology's water education website, Washington Waters - Ours to Protect at http://www.ecy.wa.gov/washington_waters/

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Media contact: Jani Gilbert, Communications, 509-329-3495; cell, 509-990-9177; e-mail jani.gilbert@ecy.wa.gov.

Additional information:

Freshwater Algae Control Program (www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/plants/algae/index.html)

Pictures of blue-green algae, visit our 2011 blog (http://ecologywa.blogspot.com/2011/09/late-summer-at-lake-watch-for-blue.html) All pictures are from local lakes

Toxic algae and health, visit the Washington Department of Health website (www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/algae/default.htm)

Ecology's social media (www.ecy.wa.gov/about/newmedia.html)