Dr. Carol Stepien,
a University of Toledo ecology professor and director of
the UT’s Lake Erie Center, told a crowd of more than 200 people
at a public forum they should stock water in their basement
because “the worst is yet to come.” The Lake Erie researcher was
referencing the typical life cycle of a summer algae bloom in
the western basin of the lake, which usually lasts until late
“I was both surprised by
this but not surprised, because this has been coming on for a
long time,” said Dr. Stepien, referencing a massive cleanup of
Lake Erie in the 1970s following the Clean Water Act and
other federal environmental legislation that improved sewage
treatment plants and removed phosphorus from household
She and other researchers
told the crowd that high levels of phosphorus in the lake are
contributing to the rapid redevelopment of toxic algae blooms.
Sources of the phosphorus are agricultural runoff (farm
fertilizers) and large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs),
also known as “factory farms.”
“Toledo is the tip of a
funnel,” explained Dr. Patrick Lawrence, UT professor and
chair of geography and planning, referencing Northwest Ohio as a
6,000 square-mile watershed of ditches, streams, and rivers that
stretches back to Ft. Wayne, Indiana and empties into Lake Erie.
“This is a large-scale
regional problem and it’s going to take a solution at that
scale,” he emphasized.
Dr. Stepien pointed to a
16-point action plan put together by researchers and published
by the Lake Erie Center. She also referenced lake dredging to
deepen shipping channels as a possible source, stirring up
phosphorus buried in sediment at the lake’s bottom.
“We need to embrace our
scientific know-how, our technology,” she said. “We’ve done this
before. We can do it again and clean up our water and we can
clean up this problem if we act together. We know what we need
to do. We know what the cause is. It is time to mobilize and
Dr. Isabel Escobar
Dr. Isabel Escobar,
a well-known expert in water treatment and UT professor of
chemical and environmental engineering, took a sip of Toledo tap
water before giving her take on how toxins reached the water
intake and passed through the city’s filtration system.
Dr. Escobar, a leading
Latina in the scientific community, told the crowd most people
would be inclined to boil water to kill the algae. But that only
makes the problem worse.
“They are producing that
microcystin within that cell. It is when that cell breaks
apart when it dies that it (the toxins) gets released,” she
explained. “So boiling it (the water) won’t do anything. It
would actually concentrate, because the water is evaporating.
That is the harm in boiling the water.”
Dr. Escobar explained that
perhaps the city’s water intake, which is three miles off-shore
in Lake Erie. The UT researcher believes the algae bloom became
so thick around the intake that water pumps and filters became
so overwhelmed with it, the rapid action broke the
microcystins in large quantities, overwhelming the
capabilities of the water filtration plant and leaving dangerous
toxic concentrations in the drinking water supply.
“Ultimately, we want to
remove that cell. We want to remove the algae itself,” she said.
“We don’t want it to die and explode, release the toxin.”
Dr. Stepien explained her
“perfect storm” comment as conditions on the lake—a thick,
pea-soup of toxic algae blown right into Toledo’s water intake
crib by winds that also moved the algae bloom toward shore.
“This will keep happening.
I would store your water containers in your basement and get
ready for later on in the season,” she advised. “We’re not at
the worst of our algae season. The worst is usually the last
week of August to the first two weeks of September.”
Those toxins can make
people sick with symptoms including headaches, vomiting, and
diarrhea. But experts emphasized no human has ever died from
“It can cause trouble, but
you really have to mix up with the stuff at really high levels,”
explained Dr. Thomas Sodeman, professor of medicine and
chief of gastroenterology at the UT College of Medicine and Life
Sciences. The medical expert stated that lab mice and livestock
have died from eating toxic algae, as have dogs that have
ingested dried algae in large quantities.
The panel discussion of
experts from UT and Bowling Green State University, held
Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014 at the Driscoll Alumni Center auditorium,
aimed to explain causes and effects and not to place
blame—how the region got to the point of a toxin produced by
algae entering Toledo’s drinking water and where leaders can go
from here to address the issue of harmful algal blooms in
western Lake Erie.
“We need to be proactive,”
said Dr. Nagi Naganathan, interim UT president, during
his opening remarks. “We will find solutions and, as a
community, make the right choices for our future. This forum is
just a first step.”
Editor’s Note: At a
news conference on Aug. 8th, Mayor Collins and others
updated the media on the problems and solutions to the current