Toxic Invaders

It sounds straight out of a horror flick: toxic invaders are attacking America’s waterways in at least 36 states. They’re causing seizures in California sea lionskilling dogs in Oregon, wreaking havoc with fishing and tourism on Lake Erie and other Great Lakes, polluting lakes in Kansas and Minnesota with neurotoxins, and poisoning the shoreline of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

They even made Oklahoma Senator James Imhofe, the controversial denier of global warming, “deathly sick” after he swam last week in Grand Lake near his home.

This year, in the Gulf of Mexico, they threaten to create the biggest “Dead Zone” in history —about 9,000 square miles, or about the size of New Hampshire. In contrast, Arizona’s recent record-setting fire burned an area less than one-tenth that size.

The culprits are runaway blooms of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. They multiply exponentially as they gorge on nutrients like phosphate and nitrogen fertilizers that run off from farmlands.

Then the killing begins. The algae suffocate fish by clogging their gills. They can produce deadly toxins that cause nausea, diarrhea, and damage to the liver and kidneys. Finally they die and decay, a process that robs the water of oxygen and other life.

The economic impact on the United States has been estimated at more than $80 million a year. This year the impact is likely to be much worse because flooding along the Mississippi basin and other rivers has carried unprecedented amounts of fertilizers into waterways and out to the Gulf.


And as the globe warms–sorry, Sen. Imhofe–these algae blooms are likely to get even larger, according to recent scientific findings.

Despite the pressing problem, the Environmental Protection Agency is under fire from businesses, political groups and state officials for attempting to impose nutrient limits on Chesapeake Bay and on waterways in Florida, both of which have been seriously affected. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives are seeking new legislation to shift authority over such issues from the EPA to the states.

Congress is also considering whether or not to fund further research through the Harmful Algal Blooms and  Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 2011.

In a passionate plea before a House subcommittee, Donald Anderson, a senior biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and director of the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms, warned that over half of all U.S. lakes and reservoirs are now at risk, while damage to our coasts is accelerating.

“I cannot emphasize too strongly,” he declared, the need for a dedication of resources “that is consistent with the scale and extent of the national problem, and that is sustained through time.”

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