What’s in the Water?
Identifying the Danger of Algae and other Contaminants
According to UNICEF, in 2015, nine percent of every child’s death, worldwide, resulted from illnesses caused by toxic water. Poor water quality contributes directly to life-threatening ailments as common but potentially deadly as diarrhea to as rare and dangerous as malaria and schistosomiasis. Thankfully, in most parts of the U.S., the water supply is exceedingly clean — especially when compared to what’s available in developing countries. Nevertheless, United States’ officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the presence of toxic algae in dozens of areas in the Midwest. In Flint Michigan, for example, poor water supply (and mismanagement of the same) has caused serious health problems for residents, as well as massive political fallout. Personally, I prefer muddy water when it comes to splashing and playing.
Algae in a Nutshell
Present in all bodies of water, algae plays an important role as a building block in the food chain.
- It functions as a carbon sink, which pulls excess CO2 from the air, reducing the risk of climate change.
- Blooms are outsized algae growths which often occur due to increased temperatures, as well as fertilizer and wastewater runoff.
- The most dangerous kind of algae is cyanobacteria, otherwise known as blue-green algae. This type is toxic to animals and humans.
How Algae Affects Humans
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has recently noted an alarming rise in incidences of algal blooms in drinking water reservoirs. They identify golden alga (Prymnesium parvum) as a frequent culprit relative to algal blooms, which include those which have affected Lake Erie in the recent past. Steps taken to mitigate the problem include better monitoring, and, in the case of Lake Erie, an ongoing effort to minimize farm runoff — which has contributed directly to the algal bloom. Algal bloom sounds like the name of a band.
Sometimes, large geographical regions can be affected. For example in 2014, the entire city of Toledo, Ohio had to avoid drinking tap water due to the presence of Cyanobacteria. More than 500,000 residents were impacted, including thousands of business owners who had to think quickly in order to provide alternative drinking sources for staff and visitors. Since Cyanobacteria are not killed by boiling, the only viable solution is to use bottled water during an algae-related water supply crisis. Boiling kills most micro organisms; so this makes me wonder just how tough these bacteria are!
To combat algal blooms, the water source must be treated. This includes restricting usage of fertilizers and other agricultural runoff sources, adding phosphorous, suction dredging, and wetlands conservation.
Other Common Water Contaminants
Beyond algal blooms, there are many other water contaminants that must be properly monitored and treated:
- Lead seepage was the main problem relative to the drinking water crisis in Flint. This is typically caused by corroded lead pipes which leech contaminants into the water supply, over time. Lead is exceedingly toxic, especially for children, and causes damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, and compromises affects brain development.
- Arsenic is another common contaminant typically found in private wells, as it is found in the earth’s crust. Detrimental health effects include cancers of the bladder, kidney, and skin, as well as blood vessel diseases.
- The EPA lists dozens of other potential contaminants including cleaning supplies, medications, and various other organic and inorganic substances. This makes me rethink my habit of dropping tennis balls and dog toys into my water bowl.
Ensuring the safety and availability of drinking water during a crisis requires diligent monitoring of water quality alerts and preparation of emergency supply kits containing sufficient stores of potable water. So remember to take proper disaster preparation steps and remember that safety is a daily priority. A convenient and affordable way to make sure you are prepared for disasters and emergencies of virtually every kind is to subscribe to the RJWestmore Training System by Universal Fire/Life Safety Services, which has been designed to help improve and save lives. For more information about the best system out there, or To subscribe, click here.