OHIO COUNTY, W.Va. — A water conservation order was in effect Friday for Wheeling and surrounding areas in Ohio County as health officials and others worked to determine the size of a large blue-green algae bloom detected on the Ohio River.
The water intake for the Wheeling water treatment plant, which supplies several other public service districts, was shutdown as a precaution on Thursday afternoon and remained closed on Friday as water testing continued in the bloom area.
The water system was operating on backup underground wells and citizens were under a water conservation order, according to Howard Gamble, administrator for the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department.
“It’s not like an oil slick that has been spotted as it moves its way on down or a gasoline spill. In this case, the algae can disappear through wind and through shifting currents and then reappear,” Gamble explained.
“The water sampling is what really needs to be done on the Ohio (River), which is in place, before someone can say we’re going to go back to the intake and run the plant as normal.”
There were no indications early Friday afternoon of how long the conservation order would continue.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first started notifying officials of the bloom on Wednesday.
Elevated levels were detected during water tests at the Pike Island Lock and Dam on the Ohio River. Gamble confirmed toxins were found in those tests. “Blue-green algae can have toxins, it also can just be blue-green algae that forms in lakes,” he said. “This had a toxin in it. That generated the health concern and the health alert.”
At high concentrations, blue-green algae can cause health problems such as skin irritation, eye irritation or intestinal illnesses.
With that health alert, residents were being told to avoid swimming or doing any other water activities in the Ohio River where blue-green algae was spotted. In this case, it’s described as looking like “paint smeared into the water.”
Gamble said the source of the bloom was unknown, but suspected, at least initially, it could be tied to the many hot days Wheeling saw prior to a major rain storm.
“That downpour could have washed off fields, streams, which has chemicals on it, everything from farm property to household property that washed off into the Ohio River and helped generate this algae that was probably already there in some form, but helped generate it to the point where it grew,” he told MetroNews.
Here is the information the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department has provided to the public on blue-green algae:
What is blue-green algae?
Blue-green algae are actually bacteria that have qualities similar to algae and other plants. These bacteria are cyanobacteria — cyan means “blue-green” — and are commonly found on land and in lakes,rivers, ponds, and in estuaries and marine water.
What is a blue-green algae bloom?
A combination of warm temperatures, sunlight, and nutrient-rich waters can cause blue-green algae to reproduce rapidly, or”bloom.” Within a few days a clear lake, pond, or ditch can become cloudy with algae growth. Blue-green blooms usually float to the surface and can be several inches thick near the shoreline.
Although blue-green blooms can create nuisance conditions and undesirable water quality, most are not toxic. A blue-green algae bloom:
Often looks like green paint floating on the water, but can also look bluish, brownish, or reddish green.
Is made up of extremely small organisms that are hard to pick up or hold.
Is most common in the summer and fall but can occur anytime.
What is a toxic bloom?
Some blue-green algae produce toxins or poisons. In their toxic form, blue-green algae can cause illness in humans, pets, waterfowl, and other animals that come in contact with the algae. Toxic blooms can kill livestock and pets that drink the water.
Signs of a toxic bloom may include:
— Dead fish, waterfowl, or other animals.
— Sudden, unexplained sickness or death of a cat or dog, especially if it has algae on its mouth, legs, or feet.
— Skin rashes on humans after being in the water.
— Eventually the toxins break down in the water and are destroyed naturally.
How do the toxins affect animals and humans?
Blue-green algae can produce both nerve toxins (neurotoxins) and liver toxins (hepatotoxins). Call your doctor or veterinarian right away if you or your pets or livestock have signs of poisoning.
Residential drinking water is sometimes taken from a lake. If this is the case and a bloom occurs, do not drink the water until laboratory testing shows the water is safe.
—Neurotoxin (nerve) poisoning: In people signs may include numbness of the lips, tingling in fingers and toes, and dizziness. In animals signs include weakness, staggering, difficulty breathing, convulsions, and death. Signs appear within 15-20 minutes after ingestion.
— Hepatotoxin (liver) poisoning: Signs include abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting in humans and death in animals. It may take days before signs of liver poisoning appear.
What if I see a bloom?
When in doubt, stay out. Avoid all contact with water containing algae. Keep pets and livestock away from the water.
Can testing ensure that all areas of a lake are safe?
No. Blue-green algae blooms are known to be very patchy in nature. Higher densities may be present in areas not surveyed, particularly along shorelines. Recreational users should avoid contact with water whenever surface concentrations of algae are evident or when the lake has an obvious green to blue-green appearance.
Can I eat fish from cyanobacteria contaminated water?
Toxins can accumulate in fish tissues, especially in the liver, kidneys and other organs. Exercise caution when considering eating fish caught in areas where major cyanobacteria blooms occur. Before eating, remove internal organs, which may contain more of the toxin.