Hawaii & Alaska
Researchers have discovered a new species of algae that’s swiftly and aggressively spreading in the Papahanaumakuakea Marine National Monument. (Courtesy: NOAA/National Marine Sanctuaries/2020)

HI - Beyond Hawaii: Heading To A Beach This Summer? Here’s How To Keep Harmful Algae Blooms From Spoiling Your Trip

Citizen scientists can provide invaluable help by monitoring local waters, experts say.

Plunging into the ocean or a lake is one of the great joys of summer. But arriving at the beach to find water that’s green, red or brown, and possibly foul-smelling, can instantly spoil the party.

As a toxicologist, I study health risks from both synthetic and natural substances. I’ve conducted research into early detection of harmful algal blooms, or HABs, which are an increasing threat to humans, animals and the environment.

Toxins produced during these blooms have been implicated in human and animal illnesses in at least 43 states. Scientists have estimated that in the U.S. alone, freshwater HABs cause more than US$4.6 billion in damage yearly. Here’s what to know about them if you’re bound for the water’s edge this summer. Harmful algal blooms have become a regular occurrence along large stretches of Florida’s coast in recent years.

Tiny Organisms, Big Impacts

Algae and cyanobacteria – often called blue-green algae – are simple, plantlike organisms that live in water. They can grow out of control, or “bloom,” especially when the water is warm and slow moving. Climate change is making water bodies warmer, increasing the risk of HABs.

The other major factor that drives blooms is high levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which fertilize algae. Nutrient pollution comes mainly from agriculture, wastewater treatment plants, septic systems and fossil fuel combustion.

Sometimes these blooms contain organisms that produce toxins – an umbrella term for many poisonous substances that come from animals or plants and can make people and animals sick and adversely affect the environment. These events are called harmful algal blooms.

HABs occur throughout the U.S. and worldwide, in both saltwater and freshwater environments. They pose significant health risks to human, pets, livestock and wildlife; damage ecosystems; increase water treatment costs; restrict recreational activities; and cut into economic revenues.

People and animals can be exposed to HAB toxins through many routes. These include skin contact during activities such as swimming or boating; inhaling airborne droplets that contain toxins; swallowing contaminated water; or eating food or supplements that contain toxins. The most severe effects generally result from consuming contaminated seafood.

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