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Troubled waters on the Illinois River

But Bureau-Putnam Health Department hasn’t received reports of illnesses from algae

Surface water affected by blue-green algae often is strongly colored such that it can develop a paint-like appearance.
Surface water affected by blue-green algae often is strongly colored such that it can develop a paint-like appearance.

HENNEPIN — Following the announcement by Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) officials of the presence of toxic algal blooms on the Illinois River, a representative from the Bureau-Putnam Health Department has stated they haven’t received any alerts from the state’s health department.

The presence of the algal toxin, microcystin, above the 4 parts per billion (ppb) health advisory established by U.S. EPA was found after a sample taken near Hennepin indicated an elevated level.

“Most likely the heavy rains will keep people off the water and dilute the concentration of cyanobacteria or wash it downstream all together,” Kurt Kuchle, director of Health Protection with the Bureau-Putnam-Marshall County Health Department, said of the recent weather.

The IEPA lab confirmed the microcystin level in the sample at 182 ppb, well above the health advisory limit. The confirmatory sample taken near Marseilles detected microcystin at 4.75 ppb, just slightly above the health advisory limit. Illinois EPA has been conducting additional sampling to determine if conditions have improved in the river.

Sampling was also done at Illinois American Water-Peoria, the only public water supply using the Illinois River as a water source, which showed toxins are below the detection limit in finished water samples.

A ranger at Starved Rock State Park said they’ve had no reports of toxic algae and added they didn’t expect to see any because of the rapid flow of water through the area.

Algal toxins, such as microcystin and cylindrospermopsin, sometimes produced by blue-green algae, can cause sickness or other adverse health effects in people and pets, depending on the amount and type of exposure.

According to the recent advisory, the very young, elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are most at risk. Adverse health effects can occur from skin contact, swallowing contaminated water, or inhaling water droplets in the air.

Symptoms of exposure include rashes, hives, diarrhea, vomiting, coughing or wheezing. More severe symptoms may result from longer or greater amounts of exposure.

As noted previously, people who plan to recreate in, on, or near Illinois rivers, lakes or streams are advised to avoid contact with water that:

• Looks like spilled, green or blue-green paint;

• Has surface scums, mats, or films;

• Is discolored or has green-colored streaks; or

• Has greenish globs suspended in the water below the surface

Don’t let pets drink from water with any of the above characteristics. If you or your pet have come into contact with water you suspect may have a bloom of blue-green algae, rinse off with clean water as soon as possible. With all activities that involve contact with lake or stream water, wash your hands before eating.

Toxic algal blooms can be caused by high levels of nutrients in the water including nitrogen and phosphorous and often develop in areas of slow moving or stagnant water.

According to the EPA, some of the causes of toxic algal blooms include run-off from agricultural fertilization; ineffective storm and wastewater systems; and pollution from fossil fuel-powered industry.

Those who are concerned about symptoms from exposure to algal toxins should contact a health care provider or call the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. If a pet experiences symptoms, contact a veterinarian.

For more information about harmful algal blooms, visit the Illinois Department of Public Health website at www.dph.illinois.gov/topics-services/environmental-health-protection/toxicology/habs or the Illinois EPA website at www.epa.illinois.gov/topics/water-quality/monitoring/algal-bloom/index.

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