Health Department Warns of Toxic Blue-Green Algae

Algae blooming in Lake Padden on Friday, Nov. 22. // Photo by Grady Haskell

By Noah Harper

A fun trip to one of Whatcom County’s numerous freshwater lakes could turn sour if you’re not observant of toxic algae warnings. Though not always toxic to people, if a pet ingests the algae it could lead to puking, weakness, difficulty breathing and even death, according to the Whatcom County Health Department.

If a pet accidentally swims through a bloom of blue-green algae, action should be taken immediately to prevent accidental ingestion.

“The best thing to do is to rinse the dog off as soon as possible. If there’s a shower or a hose at the park or nearby, hose them down,” said Tom Kunesh, environmental health supervisor for Whatcom County. “So then when they groom themselves, they’re not ingesting algae. Dogs, we recommend that they just stay out of the water and that they’re not allowed to drink the water. Ingestion is the route of exposure that we’re concerned about.”

If ingested, pet owners should take their pets to a professional immediately as symptoms can begin to show within 15-20 minutes. 

“If 15 minutes ago [your pet] was doing fine and now it’s vomiting or having seizures, act fast,” Dr. Dave Hargrove of Fountain Veterinary Hospital said. “If you actually induce vomiting with hydrogen peroxide, then you can help clear out a lot of what’s there. If I know that the exposure has happened, [I help them] vomit up what I can to minimize how much they’re going to absorb and then hook them up to fluids or something to dilute out what’s there.”

Thankfully, pets can recover from exposure to toxic algae, Hargrove said.

How can someone tell if an algae bloom is present? Normally, there are warning signs posted by the county that warn lake goers toxic algae may be present. The algae also gives off a blue-green color, from where it gets its name.

Not all algae people spot is toxic. Some blooms are harmless, but the county likes to err on the side of safety and recommends staying away regardless.

“We do test, but we only have funding for lab work during a limited time,” Kunesh said. “Each time you see a bloom come on, we do try to take a sample to characterize whether that is toxic or not. Problem is, we don’t really have resources in your lab support to test on a weekly basis. We’re still gonna leave that sign up as long as the blue is visible because between this week and next week, the toxin levels may change without testing the water.”

Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, naturally occurs in freshwater. Some species of blue-green algae produce toxins that are harmful to people, Kunesh said. Because algae is a natural part of the lake, it’s hard to get rid of it without damaging the other life. 

“Any kinds of treatments that might destroy the algae would also probably be toxic to fish or wildlife,” Kunesh said. “There are some lakes in other parts of the state that essentially have blooms all summer long. It’s unique to each lake. It’s just a waiting game until the conditions in the lake change enough so it’s longer hospitable to the bloom.” 

When the health department acts upon a bloom, it is largely reliant upon the general public reporting it.

Lake Padden on Friday, Nov. 22. // Photo by Grady Haskell

“We respond to blue-green algae blooms on a complaint basis … It may go unnoticed if no one reports it, but there’s enough folks out there that understand that blue-green algae blooms can be toxic. And we usually do hear about blooms when that happened,” Kunesh said. “The Lake Whatcom report, Silver Lake, Lake Padden, all of those came from either concerned citizens or people who already know that there’s a possible problem.”

The Bellingham City Parks staff are trained to spot and report sightings of algae and have warning signs on hand in case of a sudden bloom, Kunesh said. There are also watchful residents who know what to look for when coming to Lake Padden.

“So you just have to watch. When you see a blue sheen on the water, you don’t want to let your dog be swimming in the water,” said dog owner Elizabeth Cole, who was walking her dog around Lake Padden. “I wouldn’t know if it’s a common thing for a lot of people to know. It’s common to me because I’ve lived here for a long time, and I know about it.”

The county does not provide live updates on blooms, but the website, www.nwtoxicalgae.org, provides users with a map of Washington lakes. Users can search for their own lake to find results gathered from data within the last four weeks or previous tests of lake water.

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