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Some types of algae can produce toxins that can be harmful to people and animals. Algae blooms that produce toxins are known as Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). Environmental conditions that contribute to the formation of HABs in bodies of water include excess nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), lots of sunlight, calm water conditions, and warmer temperatures.
For the past few summers, harmful algal blooms have been identified in many Cayuga County lakes including Skaneateles, Cayuga, and Owasco Lakes. In Cayuga County, Owasco Lake is the source of public drinking water for the City of Auburn, Town of Owasco, and surrounding municipalities who purchase their public drinking water from Auburn or Owasco; and Cayuga Lake is the source of water for Wells College and the Village of Aurora. In addition, many residents use water drawn from these three lakes for their own private water supply.
In September and October of 2016, low levels of toxins, as a result of Harmful Algal Blooms, were found in the public drinking water produced by both the City of Auburn and Town of Owasco. The toxin levels remained low enough, based on current research, that the water was safe for drinking.
The information provided in the following answers is based on current science from the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
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.
The Health Department regulates public bathing beaches and closes those beaches when a HAB occurs. After the bloom dissipates and before the beach can be re-opened, the water is sampled to make sure the toxin concentration is below that at which health impacts may occur. Private swim areas are not regulated or sampled by the Health Department and therefore it is unknown when it is safe to swim after a bloom dissipates. The Health Department's experience at public bathing beaches, however, suggests that typically 24 hours after a bloom dissipates levels have been below those at which health impacts occur.
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:
Seek medical attention if you experience these symptoms after exposure to harmful algal blooms.
According to the New York State Department of Health, there have been infrequent reports of illnesses associated with recreational exposure to harmful algal blooms, and most of the 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.
Symptoms for animals include:
Seek veterinary care if your pet experiences these symptoms after exposure to harmful algal blooms.
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:
Residents in the following municipalities obtain their public drinking water from the Town of Owasco’s water treatment facility:
Cayuga Lake is the source of public drinking water for the Wells College water treatment facility. Residents from the Village of Aurora obtain their drinking water from Wells College’s water treatment facility.
The City of Auburn, the Town of Owasco, Wells College, 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 a certified laboratory on a regular basis during the harmful algal bloom season to determine if toxins are present
Sampling results can be found by visiting the Drinking Water Sample Results page.
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.
Public drinking water sampling results can be found by visiting Drinking Water Sampling Data.
Symptoms may occur after drinking water with elevated levels of toxins associated with harmful algal blooms such as:
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, has 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.
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.
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:
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.
Never drink untreated surface water (water that is drawn from the lake, at any depth), 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:
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.
Water can be used for:
Bottled water should be used for:
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. Here is an informational flyer about how much water you should store.
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.
Symptoms such as:
Allergic reactions or breathing difficulties may also 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.
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 are available for examination.
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.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) maintains a website of waterbodies that have had harmful algal blooms identified.
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.
If you think that a bloom may be harmful report it through New York State's online HABs map and reporting system.
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.
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.
The City of Auburn, the Town of Owasco, and Wells College have installed treatment at their water treatment plants to remove toxins from the drinking water before it leaves the plant.
The City of Auburn, the Town of Owasco, and those municipalities who purchase water from the City and Town as well as the Village of Aurora who purchases water from Wells College 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.
A Steering Committee has been put together to revise the Owasco Lake Watershed Rules and Regulations to make them more protective of water quality. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has developed a Finger Lakes Water Hub to address water quality issues in the Finger Lakes Region.
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 the Health Department Website 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. Landlines are already registered with the Reverse 911 alert system, but if you would like the alerts sent to your cell phone or email address you must register at: Hyper-Reach
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, Health Department 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 and 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.