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Algae Toxins Prompt Toledo To Ban Its Drinking Water

Aundrea Simmons stands next to her minivan with cases of bottled water she bought after Toledo warned residents not to use its water Saturday.
John Seewer
Aundrea Simmons stands next to her minivan with cases of bottled water she bought after Toledo warned residents not to use its water Saturday.

The National Guard is making water deliveries in Toledo, Ohio, where officials say the tap water isn't safe to drink even if it's been boiled. Gov. John Kasich has declared an emergency in the area, as officials await tests on levels of toxins that can cause flu-like symptoms and liver damage.

The water ban is affecting more than 400,000 people. Officials are telling some residents to avoid showering with the water, reports Toledo News Now, and to make sure their children and pets stay away from it as well.

The toxins' presence is blamed on algae from Lake Erie, sparking a water ban that was first announced this weekend. In addition to internal problems, the toxins can also cause a skin rash.

From member station WKSU, Kabir Bhatia reports:

"Algal blooms are fairly common on Lake Erie, which supplies most of the water for Toledo, an hour west of Cleveland. City officials have warned against drinking or even touching the water since early Saturday, and boiling will actually increase the toxin's concentration.

"Ohio's EPA expects test results today to determine if the water is safe, and the agency is trying to figure out what caused the sudden spike in toxins.

"Gov. John Kasich has declared a state of emergency and dispatched the National Guard to the Toledo area after stores there — and over the border in Michigan — began running out of bottled water."

For people who drink the water, local TV news ABC 13 says to look out for these possible effects: "abnormal liver function, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, numbness or dizziness" — and to seek medical attention if you feel ill.

As for what caused the harmful algal bloom — or HAB — ABC 13 says, "HABs occur when excess nitrogen and phosphorus are present in lakes and streams. Such nutrients can come from runoff of over-fertilized fields and lawns, from malfunctioning septic systems and from livestock pens."

In turn, the HABs' cyanobacteria yield a range of toxins that can hurt humans' and animals' internal organs, central nervous system and skin. Ohio officials say they've detected cylindrospermopsin in lake water. A guide published by the EPA notes, "The primary toxic effect of this toxin is irreversible damage to the liver."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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