Holy Toledo! Don’t Drink the Water!

The big city of Toledo had a disaster of epic proportions recently. The drinking water supply was contaminated with microcystins, a nasty toxin produced by cyanobacteria. Folks with an apocalyptic outlook may be shouting, “Look out! The end of the world is near! The sky is falling! This new bacteria will take over the world!”

Please set aside my sarcasm for a moment. Cyanobacteria is a major issue and a potential problem anywhere there is a large amount of warm, still water. It’s not pollution, per se, but it is dangerous. It’s also not new. As soon as I heard cyanobacteria referred to as “blue-green algae” I flashed back to college and Environmental Science 101. Way back then, I learned that blue-green algae was an invasive species, dangerous because it would take over the ecosystem and force out the native algae and small water animals that provide food for the bigger fish on the food chain. The same fish will not eat blue-green algae because, well, it tastes bad. Even the invasive zebra mussel turns up its nose (figuratively) at blue-green algae, eating other species and leaving more opportunities for the microcystin-producing cyanobacteria.

So, professor, are you proud of me for remembering that? Pat yourself on the back. I also learned quite a bit about water treatment. In my neck of the woods in the Great Lakes region, just like Toledo, Ohio, our local treatment plants have to go to extra lengths to clean and process the water before it goes back into the watershed. The water that enters my home is also treated thoroughly to keep it safe for cooking and drinking.

Blue-green algae and its bacteria do not get filtered out or chemically neutralized, even in the three major stages of water treatment required in the Great Lakes. In fact, boiling will not get rid of it, either. Boiling water makes the toxin stronger.

So here’s the trouble, people. This algae thrives in warm, still water. Climate change has warmed the Great Lakes and made a perfect storm, er, environment for this kind of disaster to happen again and again.

My fair city gets its water not from a Great Lake, but another nearby large body of water. A microcystin water disaster could happen here. Looking ahead, we residents need to consider:

  • How can we as individuals prepare for a disaster like this?
  • Is my filter pitcher of any use against a bacteria like microsystin?
  • What kind of contribution can I make, one that others can also achieve, to slow down the process of climate change?
  • When will “Think Globally, Act Locally” become more than a slogan and have a serious effect on the way we see our water supply?

Readers, grab a glass of cool ice water and chime in.

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