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Drinking water warnings for toxic algae in Ohio include new alerts for kids, pregnant women

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TOLEDO, Ohio — If toxins from algae contaminate Ohio's drinking water again this summer, water warnings will include new alerts for young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

The do-not-drink warnings for different ages and groups will be based on the amount of toxins detected in the water during up to 10 days, according to the guidelines announced Thursday by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

The guidelines are based on the U.S. EPA's new national health advisory levels that were developed after toxic algae on Lake Erie fouled the drinking water produced by Toledo for more than 400,000 people in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan over two days last August.

A large number of Ohio and local officials along with water plant operators pushed the federal agency to come up with a consistent national standard for algal toxins in drinking water following the Toledo water crisis.

"We had asked, as did our congressional delegation and many, many others, for them to go back and look at the science," said Craig Butler, director of Ohio's EPA.

The federal EPA in May outlined guidelines for two common toxins, including microcystin, that come from blue-green algae and can cause vomiting and diarrhea and have killed dogs and livestock. Long-term exposure can damage the liver and kidneys.

Cities in Ohio this year will first alert residents when any amount of microcystin is detected in the drinking water.

But do-not drink warnings for children under 6, pregnant women and nursing mothers will only go out after the microcystin levels reach 0.3 micrograms per liter over several days. The advisory also will include people with pre-existing liver conditions and those on dialysis treatment.

Warnings for everyone else will be triggered when the toxins hit 1.6 micrograms per liter. Last year during the Toledo water crisis, the Ohio EPA used its own standard that was based on a 1 microgram per liter limit recommended by the World Health Organization in 1998.

In addition to not drinking, the warnings will advise people not to use the tainted water for brushing teeth, cooking and making baby formula.

Ohio EPA has identified 42 water treatment plants around the state that are susceptible to toxins from harmful algae blooms, Butler said. While some are along Lake Erie, others draw their water from lakes and reservoirs.

If small amounts of microcystin are found in the drinking water, the plants will, in most cases, first try to treat the water and bring it down to an acceptable level before issuing a warning, Butler said.

The guidelines are backed by the science provided by the federal EPA, which set a separate standard for young children because they drink more water per body weight than older children and adults.

"We know some will not drink the water at the first sign of trouble," Butler said. "It's a personal choice. I respect that."

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