Blue-Green Algae in Ohio River

Health Departments Urge Precautions

Local health departments have issued a recreational public health advisory for the Ohio River. A harmful algal bloom (HAB) has been observed in the Ohio River near Cincinnati and areas upstream. The bloom is caused by a type of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

The blue-green algae is capable of producing toxins known as microcystin. A recreational advisory is issued if the toxins reach a level between six and 20 parts per billion. The latest water samples taken by the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) have shown toxin levels above six parts per billion at several locations along the river.

Under a recreational public health advisory, swimming and wading are not recommended for children, pregnant or nursing women and people with existing medical conditions.

People with pets are also advised to avoid pet contact with the water. If they get in the water during an algae bloom, they can ingest the toxins when they lick their fur.

“This type of algae is always present in the river water,” stated Tim Ingram, Hamilton County Health Commissioner. “But, if the weather conditions are right, the algae can spread rapidly, causing a bloom.”

Ohio EPA, ORANSCO and Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) are monitoring Ohio River water quality and will continue to do so over the weekend.

Public water systems have water treatment processes designed to remove toxins if they occur. Drinking water has not been affected at this time, according to GCWW.

Under the right conditions, blue-green algae can bloom in water – usually in lakes, ponds and slow-moving rivers – when there is sunlight, warm temperatures and excessive amounts of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) in the water.  “These blooms are not uncommon this time of year,” says Clermont County Health Commissioner Julianne Nesbit.  “Sunny, warm and dry weather is the perfect recipe to create an algae bloom.”

Although many species of blue-green algae do not produce toxins, some species can cause a HAB. Some HABs are visible as thick mats or scum on the surface of the water. These mats may look like spilled paint and can vary in color, including bluish-green, bright green, or even red or maroon.

HABs can produce toxic chemicals which may make people and pets sick depending upon the amount and type of exposure. This is especially true for the very young, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Types of exposure include swallowing HABs-contaminated water, skin contact, and inhaling aerosolized water droplets. HABs toxins can cause a rash, hives, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and more severe symptoms at higher levels of exposure.

“Many people will be enjoying water-related activities this weekend” said Melba Moore, Cincinnati Health Commissioner. She continued, “We encourage everyone to enjoy the water while being mindful of river conditions.”

Avoid water that:

Wash after swimming.

In some cases, skin irritation will appear after prolonged exposure. If symptoms persist, consult your health care provider.

Prevent pets and livestock from coming into contact or ingesting water containing harmful algal blooms.

If you or your pet comes into contact with blue-green algae, rinse off with clean, fresh water as soon as possible.

Seek medical attention if you become sick after recreating on the river and think you may have had contact with HABs. Contact your veterinarian if your pet gets sick.

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Photo: Blue-green algae in the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, OH. Friday September 27, 2019.