What’s the deal with Cleveland’s harmful algal blooms?

Harmful algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2001. (NOAA)

The harmful algae that bloomed at Cleveland’s Lake Erie beaches this week is different than the blooms that plague the Erie Islands, Port Clinton and the rest of the Western Basin each summer.

Scientists are still researching what causes harmful algae in Lake Erie’s central basin, said Justin Chaffin, a senior researcher at Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory. The amount of heavy rain does not seem to play a part, as it does in the western basin. But heat exacerbates the blooms.

Instead, when the water is less clear and has more sediment, maybe caused by winds, there tends to be a bigger central bloom. And when there are north winds, the bloom can wash up in Cleveland. In 2016, Fairport Harbor had a big dose of a central basin bloom.

Currently, the central basin has a bloom from the Vermilion River east to Presque Isle, Pennsylvania, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s a less intense bloom than in the western basin and Sandusky Bay. It has different kind of cyanobacteria, Chaffin said.

A central bloom looks different too.

Rather than the look of “spilled paint,” Chaffin said, water may have a green sheen. It includes the cyanobacteria dolichospermum, which produces the harmful neurotoxin saxotoxin, rather than microcystin, which produces microcystis.

The toxins are equally harmful to animals, Chaffin said.

Here’s what to know about the harmful algal blooms in Cleveland.

Where are the blooms?

Currently there are warnings at Lakeview Beach in Lorain, Veterans Beach in Avon Lake, Huntington Beach in Bay Village and more severe warnings at Edgewater and Villa Angela beaches in Cleveland.

How bad are they?

While microcystin levels this weekend at Edgewater were 10, above the recreational advisory threshold of 6, they’ve dissipated considerably, according to Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which handles testing for beaches in Cleveland.

Beaches are now below advisory levels. Edgewater had a microcystin concentration of .091 ug/L and Villa Angela had .089 ug/L, both below the advisory threshold on Monday, according to the sewer district.

Huntington was below .14 parts per billion, the lowest level detected, according to the Cuyahoga County Department of Health.

If the next test shows the same low levels, warnings will be removed.

Central blooms generally last a week or two. The NOAA forecast shows them pushed east by Thursday.

Are they harmful?

Yes, depending on the amount of toxins. According to the Ohio Department of Health, here’s what can happen.

Drinking/Swallowing HABs-Contaminated Water

  • Severe diarrhea and vomiting
  • Liver toxicity (abnormal liver function, abdominal pain)
  • Kidney toxicity
  • Neurotoxicity (weakness, salivation, tingly fingers, numbness, dizziness)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Death

Skin Contact with HABs-Contaminated Water

  • Rashes
  • Hives
  • Skin blisters (especially on the lips and under swimsuits)

Inhaling HABs-Contaminated Water

  • Runny eyes and nose
  • Sore throat
  • Asthma-like symptoms
  • Allergic reactions

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