By Abby David
community leadership student
Imagine that it’s a sweltering day in the middle of August. You’re an ambitious athlete training for a marathon, so you decide to go on a run — a 20 mile run.
Beads of sweat run down your back as you approach mile 5, and without a water bottle at hand, you rely only on the water fountains found along the path you’re running. With relief, you spot a water fountain and seek to take a swig, only to see it is covered with a black trash bag. Thinking it was broken, you shrug and keep on running.
Parched from nearly 15 miles of running in the heat, you find another water fountain covered in a black trash bag. At this point, nothing else is on your mind but water, so you tear a hole in the bag and take a drink.
Although your intense thirst was quenched, you realized later than you had ingested water filled with toxins produced by a harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie.
This situation happened in 2014 to Dr. Jason Huntley, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Toledo, during the Toledo water crisis. Lake Erie has been affected by harmful algal blooms for decades, causing health issues, green water and upset residents. Nutrient runoff and warming waters exacerbate the algal blooms and, with no intervention, the blooms are expected to become worse.
Fight Bacteria with Bacteria
Huntley said the algal bloom in 2014 happened to be located over the intake crib, causing the toxicity to reach dangerous levels. He was one of nearly half a million residents that was unable to use or consume any tap water for three days for the fear of liver issues, neurotoxicity, gastrointestinal distress and skin lesions. After long enough exposure, the toxins could even cause liver cancer.
Huntley, being a curious scientist and a caring citizen of Toledo, was inspired to study this photosynthesizing bacteria and develop solutions for the health and livelihood of the city’s people, as well as to understand its effects. Knowing that the algae production itself couldn’t be stopped, he decided to look at the situation from another angle.
“If you can’t stop nutrients going into Lake Erie, if you can’t really stop the harmful algal blooms — which we can’t — and they’re going to produce the toxin, what if there’s other bacteria in the lake that could use this as an energy source?” said Huntley.
Huntley said that the toxin is made up of amino acids that form energy in organisms. This fact sparked his idea to search for a bacteria in the lake that evolved to use this toxin as an energy source. Huntley’s search was successful.
“We’ve isolated them, we’ve shown that they can actually eat the toxin, and they break it up into non-toxic products,” said Huntley.
Huntley’s hope is to give the isolated bacteria to water treatment plants once enough studies have been conducted. The bacteria would be placed in sand filters and would remove the toxins as the water seeps through the sand. Before this can be done, however, the bacteria needs to be proven as safe. Huntley said that a solution will be available eventually.
“Science takes time and you have to prove things and reprove things and come at it from a second way,” said Huntley. “We’re working to a solution.”
Beyond the Tap
Of course, the safety of tap water is a major priority, but the algae affects citizens’ livelihoods, too. The Lake Erie Western Basin is known for its many attractions — amusement parks, water parks and, of course, the lake. Tourism is what feeds this area, and a healthy lake is essential for some businesses to stay afloat.
Brian Edwards, the director of marketing and communications at Lake Erie Shores and Islands, said that the charter fishing industry has seen the most damage.
“They have had to cancel trips or they’ve had to find different areas in the lake to go fishing because of the blooms, so it’s definitely impacted that group the most in this region,” said Edwards.
Luckily, many of the other attractions in the area have not lost business due to the algae. Edwards said that the Lake Erie area has around 11 million visitors every year.
Edwards said that a common misconception is that all of the lake is covered in algae or that all of the algae is toxic, but that isn’t the case. However, the algae is still an eyesore, even if it isn’t toxic.
“If I were to go someplace and saw the bright green algae bloom right there along the shore, absolutely I wouldn’t go in it and absolutely I wouldn’t allow my kids to go in it, I wouldn’t allow my dog to go in it,” said Edwards.
Edwards said that when there is no algae present, visitors can still do all of the activities they want and enjoy the lake as they always have.
Because Lake Erie affects so many people, Huntley isn’t the only one trying to help: The Ohio State University, Kent State and University of Cincinnati, are just a few of the many universities working towards a solution. In fact, Ohio State even has an island campus that allows students to work with and study the algae up close.
Max Puckett, 18, of Oak Harbor, Ohio, attended Ohio State’s Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island in Lake Erie the past two years. There, he collected samples of different kinds of algae and studied it as a part of his Introduction to Biology class, where the curriculum is heavily focused on Cyanobacteria.
Puckett said that his time at Stone Laboratory has been one of his favorite memories and has learned a lot about the algae, given that the island is in the area that suffers from blooms. He hopes that there are solutions to help the lake and reduce the human impact.
These universities come together, too. Huntley said that conferences are held about the algae, where people bounce ideas and solutions off each other. Reducing nutrient runoff is one option to help by making fertilizer more expensive or adding a tax to keep people from using so much. However, these options are not guaranteed to help.
“I mean, it’s easy to sit at college, or me, sit in my office and talk about what we should do, but that’s why you’ll never hear me say that,” said Huntley. “Because life is complicated.”
There is Hope
There is a long way to go before the lake is healthy again, but it is clear that people care and are striving for solutions. It won’t necessarily be easy, but it will be well worth it.
“Yes, there’s hope, but I think it’s going to require some pretty substantial changes,” said Huntley. “People are going to have to buy in.”
This feature story was written by Abby David, a community leadership student enrolled in the Agricultural Communication 2531 course during the 2019 Autumn Semester. Dr. Joy Rumble instructed the course.