The first samples were collected Monday in a new program to regularly test the water of the Columbia River in the Tri-Cities area for toxins linked to blue algae after three dogs died last year.
Last year public health officials were surprised to find a toxin in what’s commonly called “blue algae” in the Columbia River, both upstream of the Tri-Cities then along the Richland shoreline.
“Last September we got, I’ll call it, a shock of a lifetime. What? We have dogs dying?” said Rick Dawson, senior manager at the Benton Franklin Health District.
Public health officials had never seen blue algae toxins in the Columbia River in the Tri-Cities, he said.
It’s not technically algae that causes a blue or green scum on slow-moving water, but a large amount of bacteria, which produce a toxin.
The toxin not only poses a threat to pets and other animals that play in the Columbia River or drink the water, but people who spend time in the river, drink untreated water or inhale spray from the river.
For the past five summers, bacteria have been found by the Benton Franklin Health District during hot weather at Scootney Reservoir in Franklin County. The type of bacteria there produce the microcystins toxin that harms the liver.
But the toxin found last summer in the Columbia River, anatoxin-a, harms the nervous system.
“Both can kill you,” Dawson said.
Some of the dogs exposed to anatoxin-a in Columbia River water late last summer developed symptoms and died so quickly that their owners could get them to a veterinarian, said Dawson.
It’s far less common for people to die, but there was a case of a teen who died of poisoning two days after swimming in and swallowing contaminated water in a golf course pond in Wisconsin, as reported in the journal “Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care.”
Toxin sampling, reporting
The Tri-Cities-based health district and Richland, West Richland, Kennewick and Pasco are collaborating on a joint program to regularly check for the toxin.
Every two weeks samples will be collected at the river water intake for city water treatment plants and at seven river recreation sites, from Ringold in Franklin County to as far south as Two Rivers Park in Finley.
The checks could be expanded farther down river, depending on what is found.
“Instead of waiting and reacting to a report of an algae bloom that may or may not be visible, we would want to look ahead of time,” Dawson said.
The health district had planned to start sampling earlier this summer, but supply chain issues delayed the arrival of equipment ordered in January to test water.
Testing results are usually ready in about a day and a half, said Jullian Legard, the health district’s lab supervisor.
Positive samples will be sent to a King County laboratory used by the Washington state Department of Health that can check for smaller amounts of bacteria to verify the Tri-Cities lab results.
Signs are being posted along the Columbia River with information about toxic algae. They have QR codes that people can scan for more detailed information on toxins.
Signs also can be posted warning people to stay out of the water, as they were at the end of last summer when the toxin was first detected.
Tri-Cities drinking water
If toxins are detected in river water at city intakes, the sampling program will be stepped up and results will be verified at the King County lab.
The Tri-Cities municipal governments have made sure they have treatment processes to neutralize the toxin, after the unexpected discovery of the toxins last year.
In the event that treatment should not get the drinking water down to very conservative limits, the public will be notified.
In a worst case scenario, the Benton County Emergency Operations Center could be activated.
“When it carries the name toxin and it is in our water and it attacks the nervous system that is a very alarming combination,” said Pete Rogalsky, Richland public works director.
“We’ve worked very hard this last year to be prepared to neutralize it and to understand the threat more than we did before.”
The basic city treatment for water for drinking and other household use includes filtering out particles and adding chlorine. But it does not neutralize the toxin found last summer in the Columbia River.
Richland, which also supplies some water to West Richland, has begun to routinely supplement its treatment program with an additive to neutralize the toxin, said Pete Rogalsky, Richland public works director.
The additive also neutralizes an off taste that residents sometimes notice in river water when biological growth in the river is high.
Kennewick and Pasco already were using the chemical compound permanganate in their water treatment system.
It has been used in Kennewick to address odor and taste issues with river water and also oxides the toxin that was found in the Columbia River last summer, said Evelyn Lusignan, spokeswoman for Kennewick.
The exception is the West Pasco plant, which is not equipped for adding permanganate. But should the toxin again become an issue in the Columbia River, treatment would be switched to Pasco’s second water treatment plant off A Street, which has been routinely adding permanganate for years.
Avoiding toxic algae
People who see water in Benton and Franklin counties that could be toxic algae – not just in the Columbia River but also the Snake and Yakima rivers – can report it to the Benton Franklin Health District, which will be doing additional testing if problems are suspected. Call 509-460-4205.
You should avoid water that looks, foamy, scummy, pea green, is thick like paint, is blue green or is reddish, according to the health district.
There is no way to be sure whether the water is toxic without testing.
“When in doubt, stay out,” says the health district.
Exposure to people and animals can occur from swimming in the water, with symptoms such as irritation to skin eyes, nose, throat and lungs.
People area advised to immediately rinse off themselves and their pets after exposure to possibly contaminated water.
Swallowing contaminated water could cause symptoms such as stomach pain, headache, vomiting and muscle weakness or dizziness. Seeking medical attention is recommended.
People also are advised not to fish until a couple of weeks after an algae bloom. If you plan to eat fish caught from lakes with algae blooms, remove the guts and liver and rinse fillets before eating, says the health district.
To check for places in Washington state with current algae blooms, go to www.nwtoxicalgae.org/. Information also can be found on the Benton Franklin Health District website, bfhd.wa.gov, by searching for “toxic algae.”
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