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Frequently Asked Questions - Harmful Algal Blooms

Can my children and pets play in the lake water if it is experiencing a harmful algal bloom?

 

  • People, pets, and livestock should avoid contact with water that is discolored or has floating scum on the surface. If contact does occur, rinse the exposed skin thoroughly with clean water.
  • Exposure to harmful algal blooms can be deadly for pets, especially if they drink water with harmful algal blooms or when they lick their fur after swimming in waters with harmful algal blooms.
What health effects can I expect to see if I was recreating in lake water experiencing a bloom?
  • Recreational exposures can occur while swimming, wading, fishing, or boating in areas with harmful algal blooms if this water is touched or swallowed, or when airborne droplets are inhaled. Exposure to harmful algal blooms can cause diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting; skin, eye, or throat irritation; and allergic reactions or breathing difficulties. Seek medical attention if you experience these symptoms after exposure to harmful algal blooms.
Have any health problems been reported by people after recreating in water bodies experiencing harmful algal blooms?
  • According to the New York State Department of Health, generally there have been infrequent reports of illnesses associated with recreational exposure to harmful algal blooms, and most of illnesses reported were minor. Since the symptoms from harmful algal bloom exposure are very similar to symptoms from other gastrointestinal illnesses or allergic reactions, we expect that bloom-related illnesses are under-reported.
What health effects may my pet experience if they were exposed to harmful algal blooms?
  • Symptoms for animals include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, excessive salivation or drooling, stumbling, seizures, convulsions, paralysis, disorientation, inactivity, excessive tiredness, fast heart rate and difficulty breathing. Seek veterinary care if your pet experiences these symptoms after exposure to harmful algal blooms.
What municipalities draw water from Owasco Lake and supply public drinking water?
  • Owasco Lake is the source of public drinking water for the City of Auburn and Town of Owasco water treatment facilities. 
  • Residents in the following municipalities obtain their public drinking water from the City of Auburn’s water treatment facility:
    • The City of Auburn
    • Town of Aurelius
    • Town of Brutus
    • Town of Fleming
    • Town of Mentz
    • Town of Montezuma
    • Town of Sennett
    • Town of Springport
    • Town of Throop
    • Village of Cayuga
    • Village of Port Byron
    • Village of Weedsport
  • Residents in the following municipalities obtain their public drinking water from the Town of Owasco’s water treatment facility:
    • Town of Owasco
    • Town of Fleming
How is the public drinking water being monitored?
  • The City of Auburn, the Town of Owasco and the Cayuga County Health Department are monitoring the public drinking water for the presence of toxins associated with harmful algal blooms. Samples of the public drinking water are collected and sent to the New York State Department of Health laboratory on a regular basis during the harmful algal bloom season to determine if toxins are present.
If toxins associated with harmful algal blooms are in the public drinking water, is the water safe to drink?
  • The Cayuga County Health Department will notify the public when alternative water should be used for drinking, making infant formula, making ice, brushing teeth and preparing food.
  • The Cayuga County Health Department in consultation with the New York State Department of Health will issue necessary advisories for drinking water when levels exceed normal limits.
  • 2017 sampling results can be found by visiting www.cayugacounty.us/health and clicking on Harmful Algal Blooms.
What could the effects on my health be if I drink public drinking water with toxins associated with harmful algal blooms above the levels set by the EPA?
  • Symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, skin, eye or throat irritation, allergic reactions or breathing difficulties may occur after drinking water with elevated levels of toxins associated with harmful algal blooms. These symptoms are very similar to symptoms from other gastrointestinal illnesses or allergic reactions. Stop drinking the water and seek medical attention if you or your family experience these symptoms.
  • Gastroenteritis which may include diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain, and liver and kidney damage have been reported in humans following short-term exposure to toxins associated with harmful algal blooms in drinking water. However, more research is needed to fully understand the health effects.
I’m pregnant (or planning to be). Will consuming the public drinking water toxins effect my unborn child?
  • There is limited information available in the scientific literature on the potential for health effects from ingesting microcystin, the primary toxin associated with Harmful Algal Blooms, during pregnancy.
  • The Cayuga County Health Department in consultation with the New York State Department of Health will advise pregnant women not to drink the water if levels exceed normal limits.
What can I safely use the public drinking water for if the toxins associated with harmful algal bloom exceed levels set by the EPA?
  • If the toxins in the public drinking water exceed the levels that are considered safe for preschool age children or adults, you may still use the water to wash laundry, wash dishes (as long as the dishes are allowed to dry completely, either from heat in the dishwasher or via air drying before use), bathe, shower, water plants, and flush toilets.
If I live near a lake experiencing a harmful algal bloom, is my private well water safe to drink, bathe, wash dishes, etc.?
  • If a private well is a properly installed drilled well, it is unlikely to be impacted by Harmful Algal Blooms present in the lake. If the well is a shallow well installed along the shore of a lake experiencing a harmful algal bloom, toxins associated with the bloom may be present in the well water. In-home treatments such as boiling, disinfecting water with chlorine or ultraviolet (UV), and water filtration units do not remove the toxins associated with harmful algal blooms. There are treatment units on the market that have been shown to reduce microcystin levels in water, but it is not known if the microcystins would be reduced to a level considered safe.  Since individual water supplies are not regulated or monitored, it is not known if there is a health risk to drinking the water from your private well. 
If I draw my water directly from the lake experiencing a bloom, is my water safe to drink, bathe, wash dishes, etc.?
  • Never drink untreated surface water, whether or not harmful algal blooms are present. Even if the water is treated by in-home treatment units, avoid drinking water drawn directly from the lake or using the water for making infant formula, making ice, brushing teeth, preparing food, bathing and washing dishes when blooms are present. In-home treatments such as boiling, disinfecting water with chlorine or ultraviolet radiation (UV), and water filtration units do not remove the toxins associated with harmful algal blooms. There are treatment units on the market that have been shown to reduce microcystin levels in water, but it is not known if the microcystins would be reduced to a level considered safe. Since individual water supplies are not regulated or monitored, it is not known if there is a health risk to drinking the water from your private water supply.
If a “DO NOT DRINK” order is issued by the Cayuga County Health Department due to elevated toxins associated with a harmful algal bloom in a public water supply, what can I safely use the public water for?
  • Water can be used for:
    • showering/bathing 
    • washing dishes (as long as the dishes are allowed to dry completely, either from heat in the dishwasher or via air drying before use)
    • flushing toilets
    • laundry
    • watering plants
If a “DO NOT DRINK” order is issued by the Cayuga County Health Department due to elevated toxins associated with a harmful algal bloom in a public water supply, for what should I use bottled water?
  • Bottled water should be used for:
    • Drinking 
    • Bottle-feeding infants 
    • Food preparation and ice making 
    • Brushing of teeth
How much bottled water should I store in preparation for if a “DO NOT DRINK” order is issued?
  • To be prepared for a “DO NOT DRINK” order, residents should store one gallon of water per day for each person and pet in your household. You should plan on storing three days’ worth of water. Bottled water should be stored in a cool location away from direct sunlight. To view an informational flyer about how much water you should store visit: www.cayugacounty.us/health and click on Harmful Algal Blooms
How will I know the bottled water I am drinking is safe?
  • You should purchase bottled water that is certified by New York State Department of Health. This certification will be printed on the label of each bottle. The FDA considers bottled water to have an indefinite shelf life if it’s produced in accordance with regulations and remains unopened. Therefore, expiration dates on bottles are voluntary, and may reflect concerns for taste and odor rather than safety. 
  • If you bottle up public drinking water from your faucet prior to toxins being identified in the public drinking water, use only clean, food grade plastic or glass containers that seal tightly and replace the supply every six months.
What symptoms should I be looking for if I or my children drank the water after a “DO NOT DRINK” order is issued by the Cayuga County Health Department due to elevated toxins associated with a harmful algal bloom in a public water supply?
  • Symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, skin, eye or throat irritation, allergic reactions or breathing difficulties may occur after drinking water with elevated levels of toxins associated with harmful algal blooms. These symptoms are very similar to symptoms from other gastrointestinal illnesses or allergic reactions. Stop drinking the water and seek medical attention if you or your family experience these symptoms.
What do harmful algal blooms look like? How will I be able to identify these blooms if I am on the lake?
  • Discolored water, often with a paint-like appearance, with or without floating scum or mats may be evidence of a Harmful Algal Bloom. Pictures of Harmful Algal Blooms can be found here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/81962.html 
  • It is hard to tell a Harmful Algal Bloom from other non-harmful algae blooms. Therefore the Cayuga County Health Department recommends that you avoid wading, swimming, boating, and fishing in waterbodies that are discolored or has scum or floating mats present.
How will I know if a waterbody recently has experienced a harmful algal bloom?
  • The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) maintains a website of waterbodies that have had harmful algal blooms identified. The link to this website is: http://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/83310.html 
  • Please note: not all blooms are reported to the NYSDEC. If a waterbody is not listed, it does not mean that it currently does not have a bloom or did not have a bloom in the past. It is best to avoid swimming, boating, fishing or other recreation if the water body you are interested in has discolored water or has scum or floating mats present.
What should I do if I see a Harmful Algal Bloom on a body of water?
  • If you think that a bloom may be harmful and is present on Owasco Lake, the Cayuga County Health Department asks that you report it to the Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program at (315) 427-5188 or (315) 237-2066. If the bloom is present on another water body in Cayuga County, please report it to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) at HABsinfo@dec.ny.gov. Other lakes do not have their own watershed inspectors which is why the public should contact NYSDEC.
What causes Harmful Algal Blooms?
  • Scientists do not fully understand the exact causes of Harmful Algal Blooms. They are likely triggered by a combination of water and environmental conditions that allow Harmful Algal Blooms to outcompete other algae. This occurs most often in waters that are high in nutrients (phosphorus and/or nitrogen) and during periods of sunny days, calm water conditions, and warmer temperatures. Harmful Algal Blooms may be short-lived, appearing and disappearing in hours, or long-lived, persisting for several weeks, depending on the weather and the characteristics of the lake.
Are Harmful Algal Blooms caused by climate change, agriculture, or septic systems?
  • Harmful Algal Blooms tend to occur during sunny days and warmer water temperatures. The prevalence of these weather conditions may be related to climate change. Harmful Algal Blooms occur in waters that are high in nutrients (phosphorus and/or nitrogen). Nutrients come from many sources including agriculture, failing septic systems, and storm water runoff. To reduce the occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms it is important to reduce all sources of nutrients.
What preparations are being made within the City and the County to prevent toxins from getting into the drinking water?
  • The City of Auburn and the Town of Owasco are installing treatment at their water treatment plants to remove toxins from the drinking water before it leaves the plant. This equipment is planned to be installed in August 2017, before harmful algal blooms typically occur. The primary criterion upon which the water treatment options were selected was effectiveness. Secondarily, cost was also considered in the selection process.
Do we have a back-up water source available and ready for distribution?
  • The City of Auburn, the Town of Owasco, and most of the municipalities who purchase water from the City and Town have prepared emergency plans for distributing drinking water in the event the Cayuga County Health Department issues a “Do Not Drink” order. In addition, the Cayuga County Health Department is encouraging residents to store 3 days’ worth of water before the Harmful Algal Bloom season begins this year.
What is being done to prevent this from happening in future years?
  • A Steering Committee has been put together to revise the Owasco Lake Watershed Rules and Regulations to make them more protective of water quality. A link to a website regarding this process is below: http://www.cayugacounty.us/Community/Owasco-Watershed-Project
  • The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has developed a Finger Lakes Hub to address water quality issues in the Finger Lakes Region.
Where can I find current information on Harmful Algal Blooms?
  • Health Department Facebook Page – Search Cayuga County Health Department on Facebook and like our page. 
  • Health Department Website – www.cayugacounty.us/health 
  • Health Department Main Phone Number – 315-253-1560
    • Answered by a live person during normal business hours Monday – Friday.
    • Answered by our answering service at night, weekends and holidays.
How will I be notified if toxins are identified in the drinking water?
  • The Cayuga County Health Department would issue a press release that would be sent to local media outlets including newspapers, TV stations and radio stations. This press release would be posted on our website: www.cayugacounty.us/health and also posted on the Cayuga County Health Department Facebook page. We encourage you to like our Facebook page so our updated posting will appear in your newsfeed. 
  • If a DO NOT DRINK ORDER is issued we will utilize the Cayuga County Reverse 911 system.
Where will users of water (i.e. businesses, schools, hospitals and restaurants) be getting their water if a “DO NOT DRINK” order is issued by the Cayuga County Health Department?
  • Hospitals and healthcare facilities are required by the New York State Department of Health to have emergency plans in place that address a loss of potable water. 
  • If a “Do Not Drink” order is issued by the Cayuga County Health Department, Environmental Health staff will advise restaurants on what they need to do in order to stay open. Otherwise the restaurants may have to close until the “Do Not Drink” order is lifted. 
  • Schools & Businesses: We encourage all schools and businesses to prepare an emergency plan on how they will continue to remain open in the event that a Do Not Drink Order is issued by the Health Department. The Cayuga County Health Department will advise the schools on what they can do to keep their cafeterias open during a Do Not Drink event.