Last August’s water crisis raises questions about potential future incidents

April 29, 2015

Northwest Ohio faced a difficult crisis last year when local officials discovered unsafe toxins in the region’s water supply. As summer approaches, Toledo leaders are working to prevent the incident from occurring again.



Isabel Escobar, professor of chemical and environmental engineering, is researching ways to solve the problem.


“I led the Water Treatment Subgroup,” Escobar said. “We are in the process of studying different water treatment alternatives in their ability to remove and/or destroy algal toxins.”


The crisis was caused by an unhealthy amount of poisons called microcystins, which according to Escobar was made present by an abnormally large amount of algae in the water.


“The advisory was due to the presence of a cyanotoxin produced by a cyanobacteria in Lake Erie called microcystin-LR in the drinking water supply that has a World Health Organization provisional guideline of 1 milligram per liter [of water],” Escobar said.


Escobar said the effects of the crisis were not severe on campus because students were on a break, though many on-campus services had to be shut down during that period.


“Of greater significance was that all surgeries and most hospital activities had to be stopped because instruments could not be sterilized,” she said.


Though the situation only lasted a few days, Escobar and others at the University of Toledo continue to work on preventative measures to avoid another incident.


“There will always be a chance of this happening since cyanobacteria blooms can occur and release toxins,” Escobar said. “The difference is that we will be more prepared if it happens again. Professor Thomas Bridgeman, from UT, is working with the City of Toledo in an early-warning system.”


The focus of the research has been on earlier detection, Escobar said. The main issue is knowing when the algal bloom will occur so that water treatment plants can safely adjust their levels.


According to Escobar, the warning system will be able to alert people 12 to 24 hours ahead of when the algae blooms occur. He is also investigating potential conditions that may promote the production and release of algal toxins.


According to U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur’s communications director Matt Sonneborn, not only are UT professors working to find a solution to the ongoing problem, but Kaptur is also working on projects to help early detection of algal blooms.


Kaptur sent out a press release stating she is working with other legislators on a bill that would ensure there is a coordinator at the EPA who could work with the appropriate legislators, both foreign and domestic, to help address this problem in Ohio.


“This legislation reflects the kind of long-term strategic planning necessary to track and prevent algal blooms now and in the future,” Kaptur said in the press release. “Assigning a point person not only ensures EPA takes responsibility for our federal algal bloom response, it creates accountability. This is especially important as we move into another algal bloom season and ramp up investments in algal bloom research, tracking and prevention initiatives.”


Sonneborn said Kaptur is also working with different agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, NASA, the EPA, and the U.S. Geological Survey to start using satellite imagery to detect the possibility of algal blooms.


Kaptur released a statement on April 17 detailing her plan for a $3.6 million initiative to use satellite data to provide early warning for toxic and nuisance algal blooms in a 5-year collaborative project.

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