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Green cyanobacterial blooms on the Great Lakes an airborne health risk?

Jan 23, 2018

Scientists have found organic matter from toxic blooms in the Great Lakes can get airborne.

Andrew Ault is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, in the departments of environmental health sciences and chemistry. He’s an author of a new study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“Anytime a wave breaks on the ocean or in a lake, you push bubbles below the surface. When those come up, they burst and that bursting process essentially, ends up leading to aerosols being formed,” he says.

He and his collaborator at UM, Kerri Pratt, found those aerosols can contain organic material from the blooms.

“We definitely know that when you have red tides or other sorts of blooms or if you’re say, using a jet ski in the middle of a harmful algal bloom, people know that you can end up inhaling particles and having negative effects from that,” says Ault.

Ault says what they don’t know yet is whether toxins from blooms in the Great Lakes can become airborne too.

The kind of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie that’s been blooming every summer can produce a toxin called microcystin. That toxin can hurt people and animals.

“What we need to understand is, how many of the toxins are getting out, and where are they going in terms of who then ends up inhaling them? We really need to assess the exposure risk," he says.

He says that’s what they want to study next. Ault says it’s too early to give advice on what people should do. But he says it makes sense to limit your contact with the green blooms.