Residents of Ohio’s fourth largest city, Toledo, have been warned not to drink or otherwise use water if it comes from the city’s water supply. No, Freedom Industries did not recently set up shop there. The problem, it seems, is that toxins from Lake Erie’s algae bloom have made their way into the city’s water. The toxin, microcystin, can cause liver and kidney damage if ingested.
Originally, residents were told not to drink the water but the warning was quickly changed to inform them that bathing was not an option, either, as the water can cause skin irritation. Residents have also been told not to brush their teeth or even wash dishes. The situation effectively leaves 400,000 people without clean, usable water in Toledo and a few southeastern Michigan suburbs.
Toledo issued the warning just after midnight on Saturday after tests at one treatment plant showed two sample readings for microsystin above the standard for consumption. The city also said not to boil the water because that would only increase the toxin’s concentration. The mayor also warned that children should not shower or bathe in the water and that it should not be given to pets.
The first tests indicating trouble came Friday night and additional testing confirmed the elevated readings, said Craig Butler, director of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Water coming from the lake into Toledo’s water plant had relatively low toxicity levels this summer compared with a year ago until this sudden spike.
Algae blooms during the summer have become more frequent and troublesome around the western end of Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes.
The algae growth is fed by phosphorus mainly from farm fertiliser runoff and sewage treatment plants, leaving behind toxins that have contributed to oxygen-deprived dead zones where fish cannot survive. The toxins can kill animals and make humans ill.
Scientists had predicted a significant bloom of the blue-green algae this year, but they did not expect it to peak until early September.
Governor John Kasich says that it is too early to know how long the situation will last, but pledged state agencies’ help in delivering clean water to affected residents and businesses. “What’s more important than water? Water’s about life,” Kasich said. “We know it’s difficult. We know it’s frustrating.” He added, “We don’t really want to speculate on this. When it comes to this water, we’ve got be very careful.” Residents in unaffected areas are also offering their water to people who bring their own containers.
Kasich has ordered the Ohio National Guard to deliver water purification systems, bottled water, and MREs to residents in Lucas, Wood, and Fulton counties.
On Saturday, any store that sells water was bombarded with customers worried about how they would make formula or otherwise care for their families. “It looked like Black Friday,” said Aundrea Simmons, who stood in a line of about 50 people at a pharmacy before purchasing four cases of water.
Unfortunately, stores are running out of H2O. Businesses up to 50 miles away report shortages of water. The State of Ohio has asked national chains to divert as much bottled water to Nortwestern parts of the state.
Some residents are helping out their neighbors, as well. John Myers, a farmer from Swanton, a nearby town, loaded 450 gallons of well water into a container in his pickup truck and gave it away in a high school parking lot. “The more you got, the more we’ll fill,” he told those he helped. “I never thought I’d see the day that I’d be giving water away.”
Myers is concerned that the advisory could last for days. “This is a lot more serious than anybody’s thinking about,” he said.
While it may seem that Kasich and the state of Ohio are handling this the best they can given the situation, it is important to ask what was known, and what has not been done. CBS News reported that water plant operators have been concerned about the threat posed by the toxins for at least a few years. One township just east of Toledo issued a warning to its 2,000 residents not to drink or use water from their taps almost a year ago–so the concern was known, but not dealt with until the problem became so massive it could no longer be ignored.
Governor Kasich has not been a friend to the environment overall. In February, it was revealed that Kasich planned a campaign to discredit environmental groups fighting a 2011 law he signed that permits fracking in Ohio’s state parks and, in June, the Governor rolled back Ohio’s commitment to clean energy.