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New York must improve procedures for measuring, disclosing data on algal toxins

The City of Auburn is asking the state Department of Health to address New York’s rapidly spreading toxic algae crisis by adopting stricter standards for sampling, measuring and publicly disclosing levels of toxins in public drinking water.

“There are no comprehensive drinking water standards in the state of New York, and there needs to be,” said James Giannettino, an Auburn City Councilor.

The formal request came in a city council resolutionpassed Oct. 11, the same day the DOH — for the first time in state history — issued a “do not drink” water advisory in response to toxins from an algal bloom.

That advisory was triggered by high levels of microcystin, a liver and nerve toxin, in the public drinking water of Rushville and Middlesex that resulted from an algal bloom on Canandaigua Lake. It was lifted two days later, after microcystin levels fell below a federal health advisory threshold.

The brief alarm caused relatively little disruption, according to Rushville Mayor John Sawers. He praised the DOH’s rapid response in providing bottled water to a local school and a fire department, easing the challenges “for people who had to use it to take meds.

“They were taking care of people within four hours,” Sawers said. “We didn’t have one complaint.” 

But the incident underscored the growing vulnerability of public water systems  across the state that draw their raw water from any one of the 98 state water bodies that have been afflicted by toxic algal blooms this year.

That includes major population centers such as New York City and Syracuse, which have state and federal permission to operate unfiltered drinking water systems. 

At least five of the roughly two dozen waterbodies that feed into the Croton and Catskill aqueducts that supply New York City’s drinking water have reported algal blooms this year, according to state Department of Environmental Conservation data.

And Skaneateles Lake, which supplies more than 30 million gallons a day to Syracuse and other towns, has reported multiple algal blooms, some with high toxins, each of the past two seasons. 

In September 2017,  schools in the town of Skaneateles briefly turned off water fountains after microcystins turned up in that community’s tap water at nearly the federal health advisory level.

This year, raw water from one of Syracuse’s two intake pipes exceeded that federal standard twice in both August and September and six times in October, records show. Officials say that by adding chlorine to that raw water they have managed to keep Syracuse’s tap water safe to drink.

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The state Health Department considers drinking water safe as long as microcystin levels remain below 0.3 micrograms per liter (parts per billion), the health advisory level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted in 2015 for children under age 6.

City officials in Auburn are pressing the DOH to do far more. They want the state to report all trace amounts of microcystin found in either finished drinking water or the raw water that is either filtered or treated.

“The Auburn City Council requests that the New York State Department of Health (DOH) adopt a standardized sampling and analytical protocol to detect microcystins in drinking water in the State of New York that would include publicly posting any detection of microcystins above zero,” the resolution said.

Giannettino said he wasn’t optimistic the DOH would fully comply with that request, but he said he was pleased to receive signals that Auburn may get more data on micocystin readings above zero but below the 0.3 ppb threshold.   

Auburn and its tap water drinkers have reason for concern.

The town draws its water from Owasco Lake, which has reported at least 60 algal blooms that produced microcystins of more than 20 ppb, the threshold the DEC classifies as “high toxin” since 2013. In one bloom in 2016, microcystins were 2,438 ppb, roughly 120 times the DEC level for “high toxin.”

That year, microcystin was detected in the public drinking water in the towns of Auburn and Owasco — though at levels slightly below the 0.3 ppb threshold used by the EPA and DOH.

Still, that spurred a swift response from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In early 2017, the governor allocated $2 million to help the two towns buy carbon filter systems.

The new filter systems have apparently helped the towns keep microcystins out of their drinking water for the past two years. But the threat remains. On Oct. 2, a sample of raw water drawn from Owasco Lake showed microcystins at 1.2 ppb — four times the federal and state advisory level.

Microcystins are produced by cyanobacteria, which is commonly known as blue-green algae. Technically, cyanobacteria aren’t algae, though they look like common harmless algae. In lake water, cyanobacteria blooms can appear as wisps of green, mats of scum or as swaths that look like green paint.

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The DOH warns against drinking, fishing, swimming, wading or even boating in suspected blooms. It says that “high exposure” can cause diarrhea, nausea or vomiting; skin, eye or throat irritation; and allergic reactions or breathing difficulties.

But some scientists believe that seriously understates the long-term risks posed by various toxins produced by cyanobacteria, which include microcystin, dolichospermum and BMAA, among others. 

A 2014 article in the magazine “Scientific American”explored toxic algae’s possible links to the fatal nervous system affliction ALS, also know as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, through the toxin BMAA. 

And the award-winning documentary “Toxic Puzzle” traces connections between exposure to toxic algae and increased risks of ALS, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Parkinson’s Disease, again through BMAA, which is not common in New York State.

But microcystin, the most common danger from cyanobacteria in the state, is a potent liver toxin. It is toxic enough to kill dogs that drink or lick water contaminated with it, and it can accumulate in fish eaten by people.

The health advisory limit of 0.3 ppb used by the EPA and the state DOH assumes exposure over a 10-day period. For healthy adults, the advisory limit is 1.6 ppb.

The DOH reported that readings in the tap water in Rushville were 0.56 ppb and 0.66 ppb on consecutive days, according to Mayor Sawers. He said the state issued the health advisory because readings exceeded 0.3 ppb for two days in a row.

Sawers said he had heard that other towns nearby had single-day drinking water readings above 0.3 ppb — including Gorham at 0.5 ppb — but did not draw DOH “do not drink” water advisories because there were never consecutive days above the threshold. Efforts to confirm that with Yates and Ontario health departments were not successful.RushvilleREADY

The DOH disputed the assertion that any other water systems exceeded the 0.3 ppb in their finished drinking water. 

“To be clear, the Village of Rushville was the only public water system, using Canandaigua as a source of water, that had microcystin levels exceeding 0.3 micrograms per liter in their finished drinking water,” the agency said in a statement to WaterFront.

The DOH also said a “do not drink” advisory is issued for any microcystin reading above 0.3 ppb. It does not require back-to-back readings above the threshold. (Read the full NYSDOH statement to WaterFront here.)

Confusion over state DOH procedures is one reason the state should clearly explain its standards for testing and publicizing data on toxins in public drinking water, Giannettino said.

Carefully quantifying toxin contamination levels may help public water system managers determine strategies for dealing with the threat. Without data, they can’t make informed choices about whether to treat endangered raw water, or opt for expensive new filtering systems. 

If the sharp rise in algal blooms continues, New York City may need to review its need for filtering systems. 

DEC records show that five reservoirs in the Croton Watershed that supply drinking water to the city had confirmed blooms this year: Croton Falls, New Croton, Diverting, Muscat and Kirk Lake. 

Details on the intensity of the toxins produced were not available.


Peter Mantius is the founder of the Water Front, an all-digital publication dedicated to providing news and coverage of important environmental news in the Finger Lakes. He brings decades of reporting and editorial experience to his reporting, which includes frequent deep-dives into local, and regional issues. Contact him by clicking here or dropping him a line at mantius@fingerlakes1.com.

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