Public Health Risks from Harmful Algal Blooms- Health and safety near the lake

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By Dr. Jill Chasse: Every year there is some kind of “don’t go in the water,” warning that we in NJ see. It could be a shark sighted in Point Pleasant, jellyfish at Seaside or e.coli in Lake Hopatcong.

Heck, we even get kicked out of public pools if a toddler wanders in with a diaper. Water recreation is fun and refreshing, but when warnings aren’t heeded, it can become a nightmare.

In the past week, warnings have been published by the Sussex County Health Department. Several beaches in Hopatcong have been closed due to Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) in the water of Lake Hopatcong. The excessive growth, “bloom” identified in Lake Hopatcong are specifically cyanobacteria (also called blue-green algae due to its color), microscopic organisms which produce dangerous toxins.

The water may appear to be beautiful, with cyan waves cascading through, but these toxins are harmful to both humans and animals. High concentrations, like those reported in several beach areas around the lake can cause severe stomach issues including intestinal infections that may lead to cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Cyanotoxins often produced by cyanobacteria can cause people to get headaches, skin or throat irritations, and various allergic responses.

So how do you stay safe and healthy in the water? You don’t. Obviously this means do not drink this toxic water, but it also means don’t wade in it, swim or even go on a raft or kayak since you’ll most likely get wet in these types of water vessels. Don’t even go fishing, because you’ll essentially be man-handling poison fish. Just stay away from the affected areas until the ban is lifted. Additionally, don’t hang out on the beaches near the contaminated water. A study conducted during a Florida red tide found that marine HAB toxins could be transported in the air almost 4 miles inland from the water source. This is a different type of HAB, but it is still possible to inhale the toxins, so the further away you are the better. It won’t last forever and it is better to be safe than sorry.

But what happens if you were sunning on a beach nearby or accidentally in the water before you realized that the pretty green colors were actually poisonous? Well, hopefully you didn’t ingest any of the green gunk (it does have a pretty foul odor), but after exposure, all you could do is to keep your eyes open for signs and symptoms of illness.

If you see any of the following symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor ASAP and tell him or her that you were exposed to cyanobacteria.

  • skin irritation (itching, dermatitis, blisters)
  • eye irritation (swelling, conjunctivitis, itching, sensitivity to light)
  • headache
  • weakness or muscle pain
  • respiratory irritation (breathing issues, sore throat)
  • pneumonia
  • abdominal pain
  • vomiting
  • if ingested, gastrointestinal issues can range from mild to severe including,nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

If you do notice any of these expose symptoms, as long as you’re on top of it, you should be okay. Not only are there significant testing options available to evaluate related or potential illnesses, such as serum glucose, urine and liver function tests, but there are also very simple treatments. Ingestion is typically treated with replenishing fluids and electrolytes just as if you had a stomach bug. At the most antihistamines and/or steroids can be prescribed for allergic reactions.

Remember to heed warnings of the local health departments and don’t try to disobey lifeguards or “do not enter” signs just because you want to take a swim.

Jill Diana Chasse, DrPH, PhD, MS, MPA 
Doctor of Public Health & Epidemiologist


Anderson DM, Hoagland P, Kaoru Y, White AW. Estimated annual economic impacts from harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the United States. [PDF – 96 pages].

Florida Department of Health. Harmful Algal Blooms – Economic Impacts. Cdc-pdf[PDF – 1 page]External 2008.

Koreivienė J, Anne O, Kasperovičienė J, Burškytė V. Cyanotoxin management and human health risk mitigation in recreational waters.External Environ Monit Assess. 2014;186(7):4443-59.

Van Dolah FM. Marine algal toxins: origins, health effects, and their increased occurrence.External Environ health Perspect. 2000;108(Suppl 1):133.

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