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Published: Saturday, 5/5/2007

Cleanup of toxic lake algae takes precaution

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

So you own shoreline property along western Lake Erie's Maumee Bay. With sunny, mild weather in the forecast, you figure this weekend would be a splendid time to have company over for a barbecue while enjoying the scenic view.

Then - WHAM! - you see it. Blobs of pea-green algae where water meets land. And you smell an odor so foul it make you sick to your stomach.

Cleaning up algae isn't your typical outdoor tidy-up project. Making matters worse, the material clumped up along the western Lake Erie shoreline these days - called lyngbya wollei - isn't your typical algae.

It's toxic.

Not to worry. Assuming you're not going to eat the algae, the toxins in it probably aren't high enough to make you ill by touching it or breathing in the air that surrounds it - especially if the clumps have been exposed to the sun's ultraviolet light for any length of time, said Thomas Bridgeman, a University of Toledo environmental sciences assistant professor researching the local outbreak.

Mr. Bridgeman works at UT's Lake Erie Center in Oregon, which is at the epicenter of the outbreak. He said there's relatively little published material outlining cleanup steps.

But he felt OK after walking through the algae for a couple of hours in hip waders on Wednesday, while on a mini-expedition to measure it.

"Other than having stinky hands, I didn't have any ill effects. But it's possible some people could have sensitive skin," he said.

He said the algae is four feet thick in some areas.

He wouldn't fear moving the algae with a pitchfork or rake, if you're so inclined.

But that's just it: Be realistic about how much time and muscle you'll need to invest in such a project. Mr. Bridgeman said the watery gunk is so heavy it won't take much before you'll want a backhoe.

As for precautions, you're probably OK without a surgical mask. He recommends waterproof gloves, high boots, pants, and a long-sleeved shirt, though.

You'll still want to keep your pets away from it, officials have said.

David Culver, of Ohio State University, an algae expert who has testified before Congress and led U.S.-Canada algae research teams, encouraged anyone going to the trouble of removing the algae to properly dispose of it.

"No point in dumping it [back] in the lake to wash ashore on someone else's property," he said.

Lyngbya wollei is one of four forms of algae in Lake Erie known to have toxins.

Unlike the other three, it is stringy material that balls up in the shape of marbles as it rises to the surface and forms thick mats along the shore. It also doesn't necessarily fade away as the water cools. Mr. Bridgeman saw it in September, and said it survived the winter.

Mr. Culver said carbon-activated filtration systems, such as the one Toledo uses to treat raw water it draws in from Lake Erie, remove the toxins from lyngbya wollei and the other forms of algae known to be in the lake.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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