Don’t Drink the Water

This last week, we had a water advisory enacted that said that there were toxins in the water supply courtesy of a blue-green algae bloom in the lake from which our town (and a few others) draws water. The advisory said that children under six, immune compromised people, elderly, those with kidney disease, and pets, should not drink the water, but everybody else could. They didn’t give the advisory right away. They waited for four days after knowing about the toxins (cyanotoxins) to release the information. Currently the advisory has been lifted, though I’m not convinced it won’t recur.

But I have questions. First one came as a result of the four days they waited to make the announcement. Officials indicated that they had up to ten days, since the toxins wouldn’t have adverse affects until then. My question? How much do the toxins build in the system and can they be flushed? In other words, is it like lead that bio-accumulates? Unfortunately, no one said anything about that and I haven’t been able to track down the answer.

Second question came up because of the repeated “blue-green algae” language that everyone used in reference to the algae bloom. I wondered if there are other colors. And are other colors unsafe? Why is the color so mentionable? Don’t have the answer to that, either.

It sounds as if there are frequently some level of toxins in the water that are lower than the threshold that requires an advisory. That made me go back to my first question about bio-accumulation.

The town ran out of bottled water very quickly. We were lucky enough to find a few gallons to give the dogs, who are apparently very susceptible to cyanotoxins. More water got shipped into  town within a day or so, and the neighboring city opened up a lot of fill spots (they are on a different water system) for people in need. Our city got some distribution points set up as well using water that was trucked in.

All the local Starbucks quit selling any handcrafted drinks. Some restaurants closed. Heating the water only increases the toxicity, so anybody cooking with tapwater could created an added problem for customers. Then there’s ice, soda, washing food, and so on. Other restaurants posted warning signs and kept chugging away.

Water is often a topic of conversation in our world–who has rights to it, where we can get it, is it clean, how can we keep it clean, how can we use it for energy, how can we make it a better habitat for fish and other wildlife, and so on. It seems to me that clean water is a human right. An inalienable right. You can’t give it away or otherwise lose that right. Unfortunately, a whole lot of people don’t agree with me, but this particular event has reminded me how very privileged we are to have clean running water available at any hour of the night and day, and how wrong it is that places like Flint don’t have that. And not just Flint. Every country in the world that doesn’t.




Don’t Drink the Water — 13 Comments

  1. Question from a non-native-English-speaker: you say it’s an inalienable right , and then you say that you can give it away or lose it. Don’t you mean you can’t give it away or lose it? I thought that was what inalienable means?

    I am not a biologist, nor do I know much about poisons. I don’t know if these cyanotoxins get stored in fat cells or are pissed out again.
    I think the blue in blue-green is related to the cyan in cyanobacteria, as both produce cyanotoxins – the most (in)famous of which is cyanide. So emphasising the blue in blue-green algea means putting more emphasis on the more dangerous poisons those create, as compared to ordinary green algea.
    There are other colors of algea too, just think of the different colors found in the volcanic hot springs, each color preferring a different water temperature.
    There have been ‘red tides’ too, where the sea turns redbrown from all the tiny floating algea (IIRC) when seawaters have been way over-manured by phosphate runoff from agriculture or industry on land. Those are toxic to sealife as the algea use up all the oxygen in the water, then the algea too die off, and all those dead things rotting away in anaerobic water makes the water poisonous. I don’t remember those algea being so toxic in themselves, though they can irritate the skin if you go swimming in them: warnings are put up, not to let your dog swim in there or go swimming yourself, same as happens for an infestation of blue-green algea.

    • Ug. I meant can’t. I will edit.

      Yeah, I knew that there were a multitude of algae varieties. I’ve been to Yellowstone and have seen the rainbow of them in the various geysers and springs. I knew about red tides, but didn’t realize those were algae. I thought they were something else, so that’s cool to know. Thanks for the info!

      • The toxicity question is difficult to answer. Are they reporting the species of concern, or just saying “blue-green algae”? Blue-green algae (alias cyanobacteria) are a very large group of organisms, only some of which are “bad guys” from a public health standpoint. Unfortunately, the known toxin producers include representatives with very diverse biochemistry, so it’s impossible to generalize. Have they said which class of cyanotoxins (cyclic peptides? alkaloids?) or which set of symptoms (liver? nervous system? skin irritation?)

        The “cyan” of the name is related to the blue-green color of the phycocyanin pigment that helps the organisms collect light energy for photosynthesis, rather than to cyanide. (Think color as in “cyan” ink cartridge.) The algae themselves may or may not appear blue-green, depending on the ratios of chlorophyll and the various helper pigments (blue-green phycocyanin, red phycoerythrin, etc.)

        “Red tide algae” and “red algae” are two entirely different groups of algae. “Red algae” have chloroplasts remarkably similar to blue-green algae. Many red algae look red due to high phycoerythrin:phycocyanin ratios, some look blue-green, and some, such as the nori used to wrap sushi, look plain green to my eyes. “Red tide” algae, on the other hand, get their redness from a totally unrelated type of red photosynthetic pigment. They belong to the dinoflagellates, a unique group of swimming one-celled algae. Some of the red tide organisms definitely produce nasty toxins that can bioaccumulate in shellfish.

        Not all of the colorful organisms in the hot springs count as “algae” at all. Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) are traditionally called algae, because they basically perform the same type of oxygen-releasing photosynthesis as plants. However, Yellowstone hot springs also feature creatures such as photosynthetic purple bacteria that accumulate sulfur rather than producing oxygen.

        More than you ever wanted to know…

        • How cool! I totally wanted to know.
          I’m not entirely convinced that they knew which algae, other than blue-green. They mentioned liver and kidney effects in the paper, but I’m not sure that came from officials or from reporters looking up the algae.

        • So do you know if the cyanotoxins build up in the body? Do they flush out and how long does it take? I’m asking because the advisory is back, and they are telling us that you can drink the low-level toxins for 10 days before you have a problem, which suggests to me a buildup in the body, but I’m not exactly knowledgeable and I can’t find the answer online.

    • You’re right about the definition of inalienable rights — it should mean rights you can’t give away or lose. In current political usage — and not just in the US, I suspect — I think we use it to mean rights that should be inalienable. The situation with the water in Flint, Michigan, shows that the right to decent water has not been treated as inalienable in the US.

  2. This horse has long ago left the stable.

    Back when I was in an Information Sciences graduate program, I did an in-depth research project on municipal water supplies. Along the way I learned a very great deal about the corporate push for profit (and collaterally massively contribute to the plastic waste build-up on land and in water) to wean people from ‘public’ tap water to bottled water. Along the way they were buying up every bit of access to potable water supplies for themselves. This was over 20 years ago I did this project and they’d already owned just about all the potable water across the globe.

  3. There’s a song that goes ‘We built this city on rock & roll.’ No, we didn’t. We built it on decent sewage systems and reliable water supply. Civilization is not possible without it. Just ask them in Flint, MI.