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Blue-green algae impacts debated 
By TIM RIOS and BRAD SMITH Daily News Staff Writers September 1, 2006

SISKIYOU COUNTY — Controversy exists over possible health impacts from contact with the blue-green algae found in parts of the Klamath River.

Residents of the Copco Lake and Iron Gate surrounding areas dispute what they say are “news reports about people and animals getting sick.”

“I can tell you,” said Copco resident Phil Reynolds, “I’ve lived here 26 years and I’ve never seen any of those things happen.”
The consensus among the community members at a recent meeting was that no one in their community had ever become ill after swimming in the lake or eating fish from it.

They said that the algae is an annual occurrence that has been a part of the lake communities for as far back as they can remember. They avoid it and, therefore, it’s not an issue, several residents said.

However, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency senior policy advisor Maria Rey, the comments from Copco and Irongate residents cannot be viewed as conclusive evidence that the algae poses no health risk.


Siskiyou Daily News Photo/Brad Smith - Abour 50 residents of the Copco Lake/Irongate Dam communities meet to air their views about the blue-green algae issue. “We appreciate that sort of oral history,” Rey said. “But the truth is, there are several different types of algae.”

DAILY NEWS PHOTO/BRAD SMITH - Birds nest along a large blue-green algae bloom along Copco Lake’s shore. The residents of this community say that the algae has had no ill effects on them, their animals or the lake’s fish.

Rey explained that although the Copco and Irongate residents say they have seen algae in the water for years, it is possible that the algae they’ve seen before is not the species now being detected in the Klamath.

Recent water sampling performed by the Karuk Tribe on the Klamath confirmed high levels of a blue-green algae that could pose health risks, Rey said.

As part of an ongoing water quality monitoring program, the EPA funded the Karuk Tribe in spring of 2005 to conduct additional sampling on the Klamath, according to Rey.

“We didn’t know anything about the blue-green algae,” said Karuk Tribe department of natural resources Klamath campaign coordinator Craig Tucker. “What we were trying to find out was the health of the fish.”

The results of those tests found high levels of a blue-green algae species known as microcystis aeruginosa in samples taken from Copco Lake and Irongate Reservoir earlier this summer.

Shortly thereafter, a press release issued by Siskiyou County Public Health warned of the possible effects of contact with the algae.

An excerpt reads: “While there have been no documented cases of human illness associated with blue-green algae in California, studies around the world show that recreational exposures to toxic blue-green algae might result in eye irritation, allergic skin rash, mouth ulcers, vomiting and diarrhea, and hay-fever like symptoms.”

Siskiyou County Health Officer Dr. David Herfindahl explained that while no ill effects are anticipated from human interraction with the blue green algae, he felt it was important to publicize all available health information about the issue.

Terry Barber, the health department’s director of environmental health, said that animal deaths reported last year as being related to blue-green algae blooms did occur – but not in Siskiyou County.

“That particular press release was about cases that happened in Humboldt County, and it was a completely different sort of toxin,” she explained

In the Humboldt County case, dogs that had swum in the Eel River were dead within 30 minutes.

“But that’s because Anatoxin A was detected in the Eel River,” said Barber. “Anatoxin A has never been detected in the Klamath River nor Copco Lake.”

According to www.cbwinfo.com, a chemical and biological weapons infomational web site, Anatoxin A is synthesized by the blue-green alga Anabena flos-aquae.

Anatoxin-A binds to receptors that receive the acetylcholine impulses from nerve ending. When the chest muscles responsible for breathing are affected, overstimulation of the muscles leads to limb paralysis and death.

Barber said that there have been no recorded cases of human or animal iillness or death from contact with blue green algae in Siskiyou County.

Tucker confirmed that he did not know of any cases reported of sickness due to blue-green algae found in the Klamath.

But the Yurok and Karuk tribes are voicing concern, they say, because their lifestyle is widely connected to the river.

“We swim in the water, we fish in the water,” said Karuk vice-chairman Leaf Hillman. “We want to make sure our people are safe.”

In addition to the results found in Copco and Irongate in July, toxins were detected in the lower Klamath on July 26, according to Ken Fetcho, the Yurok Tribe environmental program water division assistant director.

“Low levels of the microsystin were detected during our routine monthly tests,” Fetcho said.

The species of blue-green algae known as microcystis aeruginosa produces a toxin known as microsystin.

In essence, Fetcho said, the toxin produced by the algae cells was detected before the blooms themselves were.

Copco and Irongate residents also confirmed that no animals have died as a result of the algae. They said that theirs is a “thriving ecosystem.”

“I have no fear putting my kids in the water,” said Irongate resident K.C. Walden.

The residents questionned the method and location of the samples taken.

Several said that they witnessed samples being taken only along the shores where the algae growth is most profuse.

“Were any deep samples taken in the middle of the lake?” one resident asked.

The answer to that question, according to Rey, is yes.

She confirmed that sample locations, including along the shores where swimmers might come in contact with the algae, as well as mid-reservoir to test deeper waters, were tested evenly.

Rey also said that the sampling techniques and protocols used by the Karuk Tribe met the EPA’s quality assurance and quality control standards.

“The samples collected this July showed levels of microcystis aeruginosa more than double the highest level recorded last August along the shoreline,” said Jacob Kann, Ph.D., a water quality specialist who reported on the sampling conducted by the Karuk and Yurok Tribes.

“The recent July levels exceed the World Health Organization standard for moderate probability of adverse health effects by over 3,900 times,” he said.

Kann goes on to say, “Microcystin toxin produced by the blooms in one location was 2813 micrograms/liter. That measurement is also the highest recorded to date and exceeds the WHO guideline of 20 micrograms/liter by as much as 140 times.”

“The studies of human interaction with blue-green algae blooms are very limited,” Barber said.

She added that there “aren’t standardized tests per se.”

Barber said that the most common methods used were enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and mass spectrometry.

Studies getting underway in Florida and Michigan, wherein scientists and doctors will be working with volunteers, will be closely followed by the Siskiyou County Health Department.

“We’re going to monitor their efforts, step-by-step,” Barber said.

“In a sense, this is new territory for everyone involved.”

The EPA stands by its numbers and urges the public to take steps to avoid contact with the algae.

“We do see this as a serious risk,” Rey said. “The recent samples are the highest in the continental U.S. at this time.”


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