Harmful Algae Blooms

Algae are microscopic plants that naturally live in freshwater and saltwater environments. Algae can grow quickly during the summer and form a larger growth called a bloom. Some types of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, form toxin-producing blooms. When toxin-producing blooms die and decay, the toxins may be released into the water and could pose health concerns.

Risk Advisories

It is very difficult to predict if blooms will form. It is even more difficult to predict if blooms will release toxins. Blooms of algae and blue-green algae may vary considerably in colour, consistency and overall appearance. The presence of blooms triggers monitoring since toxins are only formed if there are blooms.

A risk advisory is issued when an algae bloom is observed. Initial testing is done to confirm if there are toxin-producing cyanobacteria present in the algae bloom. Certain cyanobacteria are toxin producing and others are not. Due to the difficulty of quickly identifying the presence of toxin-producing algae in a bloom, and the changing nature of water quality, risk advisories are issued using an abundance of caution for public health and safety.

  • If there is no risk for toxin production, i.e., there are no toxin-producing algae present in the bloom, the risk advisory will be lifted, and no further testing is required.
  • If there is a risk for toxin production, i.e. there are toxin-producing algae present in the bloom, the risk advisory remains in effect. At municipally supervised beaches, visual bloom monitoring will continue until blooms have disappeared and remain absent for seven consecutive days. At that time, water samples will be tested for toxins at a certified lab. The risk advisory will be lifted if toxins are within safe limits. If the toxin levels are above safe limits, the risk advisory will remain in effect until later test results reveal they are within safe limits (below current guideline values).
Test results Action taken
Test results Action taken
No toxin producing blue-green algae is present The risk advisory will be lifted
Toxin producing blue-green algae are no longer present but toxin concentrations do not exceed guideline values The risk advisory will be lifted
Toxin producing blue-green algae are no longer present and toxins exceed guideline values The risk advisory will remain in effect

A bloom can appear as surface scum, foam, a mat and/or discoloured water. A bloom can be blue, blue-green, green, red, brown or yellow in colour. Some look like paint streaks on the water, while many others do not affect the look of the water. The municipality asks anyone who observes water conditions with these characteristics to call the provincial Inspection Compliance and Enforcement office at 1-877-9ENVIRO (1-877-936-8476).

Staff monitor and report on the status of 19 beaches across the municipality

 

If a beach is closed, do not swim or engage in any other recreational activity that may involve contact with water (e.g., paddling). Keep children and pets away from the water. Do not drink the lake water and please note that boiling water will not remove toxins.

We encourage everyone to follow beach rules and restrictions to be safe when visiting the beaches.

Questions and Answers

 

What are blue-green algae (cyanobacteria)?

Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, are plant-like bacterial organisms naturally found in many types of water systems including ponds, lakes, rivers and wetlands. Blue-green algae are naturally present in small numbers. Under the right conditions (warm, slow moving, shallow water with enough sunlight and nutrients), blue-green algae can grow quickly and form blooms. Blue-green algae can be floating on the surface or grow along the bottom of a waterbody in what is called a mat. In large quantities, some types of blue-green algae produce toxins, which can be harmful to humans and animals.

What is a blue-green algae bloom?

Under the right conditions blue-green algae can increase in numbers quickly, forming a bloom. A bloom can appear as surface scum, foam, a mat and/or discoloured water. A bloom can be blue, blue-green, green, red, brown or yellow in colour (see photos for both local and regional examples). Some look like paint streaks on the water, while others may not affect the look of the water. Algal mats can be dark green or brown and often have the appearance of bubbles throughout the mat. Blue-green algae toxins can reach high levels in blooms, which can be harmful to the health of humans and animals. Commonly, blooms can smell like newly mown grass, or rotting garbage. 

When do blue-green algae blooms usually happen?

Blooms in Halifax usually occur in the summer and early fall but may develop at other times of the year under the right conditions.

What causes a blue-green algae bloom?

Some conditions important for bloom growth include: 

  • Warmer water temperatures
  • Amount of light and length of daylight
  • Wind and water currents (blooms often occur in slow moving shallow water) 
  • Excess nutrients (phosphorous/nitrogen)
  • Suitable pH

What is the difference between an algae bloom and an algae mat?

Algae blooms and algal mats are two different types of cyanobacteria. Most cyanobacteria blooms float on surface of water or migrate within the water column. Other types grow as a thick mat on the bottom of shallow lakes or rivers. Blue-green algae mats are typically dark green or brown and contain a different type of toxin to toxin-producing blue-green algal blooms.

What should I do if I see a blue-green algae bloom? 

Do not swim or engage in any other recreational activity that may involve contact with water (e.g., paddling) in areas where there is a bloom. Keep children and pets away. Do not drink the lake water. NOTE: Boiling water will not remove toxins.  You can report a suspected algae bloom by calling the provincial Inspection Compliance and Enforcement office at 1-877-9ENVIRO (1-877-936-8476).

What happens if you swim in water contaminated with blue-green algae toxins?

If you swim in contaminated water, your eyes and skin may get itchy and irritated. You may also get hay fever-like allergy symptoms. Skin contact with blue-green algae toxins may cause result in hives, rashes, or blisters. You should wash with clean water as soon as possible after contact with a suspected algae bloom. If symptoms persist, seek medical advice.

What happens if you drink water contaminated with blue-green algae toxins?

People or animals that drink contaminated water are at risk of headaches, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, muscle, joint pain, and liver damage. Symptoms from exposure to blue-green algae toxins could come-on quickly and last for several days. Children and immuno-compromised individuals as well as pets are at a higher risk for the more severe effects. 

What should I do if I come into contact with water contaminated with blue-green algal toxins? 

If you think you might have come into contact with blue-green algal toxins in the water, you should remove any affected clothing and wash the affected area with clean water as soon as possible. If you experience symptoms or health effects after recreational contact with affected water, please seek medical advice. 

How harmful are blue-green algae toxins? 

Very few incidents of human poisoning have been reported. People don't usually drink water contaminated with blue-green algae because of the scum and smell.  During recreational activities such as swimming, contaminated water could accidentally be swallowed. See What should I do if I come into contact with water contaminated with blue-green algal toxins?

Exposure to low levels of toxins for long periods of time can potentially have long-term or reoccurring effects in humans.

Children are at greater risk than adults of developing serious liver damage from ingesting algal toxins, mostly because of their comparatively lower body weight and increased likelihood of consuming water while swimming. Immuno-compromised individuals as well as pets are also at a higher risk for the more severe effects. 

Can I still drink my tap water during a blue-green algae bloom? 

You should not drink water if the source waterbody has blue-green algae blooms.  Since toxic blooms cannot be identified by sight and need to be tested, it should be assumed that toxins are present.  If you receive your drinking water directly from a source that has a confirmed blue-green algae bloom, do not drink it even if you have a water treatment system.  Residential water treatment systems cannot remove blue-green algae toxins from the drinking water. Also note, boiling water does not remove blue-green algae toxins from drinking water.

If you are connected to a municipal or registered water supply, you can continue to use the water as normal unless notified otherwise by the system owner/operator. While algal blooms do not happen naturally in groundwater, contaminated water from lakes, ponds or streams can enter nearby shallow dug wells and improperly sealed drilled wells.  If your well is near a body of water that has a confirmed BGA bloom, you should exercise caution and use an alternative water source wherever possible.

Can I cook using water with blue-green algae in it? 

No. Boiling water does not remove toxins from the water. 

Can I use water contaminated with blue-green algae toxins for washing? 

If a safe source of water is available, don't use contaminated water for washing clothes or dishes, as you will risk the negative effects of skin contact with algal toxins. If no alternate safe source of water is available, then you may use contaminated water for washing laundry or dishes. Exercise caution while doing so, by using rubber gloves to avoid direct contact with the water. Rinse dishes with water from a clean, alternate source.

Bathing or showering in contaminated water should be avoided, as skin contact with the toxins can lead to skin irritation and rashes. 

Can I eat fish from water contaminated with algae toxins? 

Toxins can accumulate in the tissues of fish, particularly in the internal organs (liver, kidney, etc.). Toxin levels in tissues depend upon the severity of the bloom in the area where the fish are caught or collected. Caution should be taken when considering the consumption of fish caught in areas where blue-green algal blooms occur. The internal organs of fish should be removed and disposed of. Fish should be rinsed well with clean drinking water before being cooked and eaten. 

Should pets or livestock drink water containing blue-green blooms? 

No. Livestock and domestic animals may be poisoned by drinking water contaminated with blue-green algae toxins. Animals are not more sensitive to the effects of the toxins; they are simply not as concerned with the way water looks or smells before they drink it.

Do a visual inspection of the water before letting your pets or livestock enter or drink the water. If you suspect the animal has ingested water containing a blue-green algae bloom, contact a veterinarian.

Can water with blue-green algae blooms be used for recreational activities? 

Swimming and any other recreational activities (e.g., paddling) that may involve contact with the water should be avoided in areas where a bloom is observed. Blue-green algae toxins, if present, could be accidentally swallowed or inhaled. Skin contact with blue-green algae toxins may result in a rash, blisters or itchiness.  OR See What happens if you swim in water contaminated with blue-green algal toxins?for symptoms of skin contact with blue-green algae.

Why are public beach closures and risk advisories issued during blue-green algae blooms? 

Since some blue-green algae species can produce toxins that are harmful to humans, blue-green algae blooms are considered a public health concern and beach closures are issued. Closures also serve to remind users to check the water for the formation of highly visible blooms and mats (which pose the most risk) before entering. Since conditions may change in a matter of hours, being aware is crucial to making good decisions and staying safe. 

How long will a closure remain in effect? 

Beaches will remain closed until advisories for the applicable lake is lifted.  Advisories will remain in effect until no blooms can be visually observed and subsequent test results indicate that toxin levels in the water are within safe limits. Our website will be updated when beaches are reopened. 

When is it safe to use the water again? 

If a risk advisory is in effect, it is not safe to use the water. Even after a risk advisory has been lifted it is recommended that you visually check the water before entering, as blooms can appear quickly. Even if you can't see a bloom floating on the surface of the water, or along the bottom of the lake or river, that doesn't mean one isn't present. After the toxin producing algae bloom is gone, toxins can remain in the water for several weeks. The time for water to recover to its normal state varies by bloom based on local conditions.  

How many lakes are monitored in the Halifax Regional Municipality? 

Staff regularly monitors 19 beaches across the municipality.  The municipality encourages lake users to use caution when visiting other lakes in the region. Users should check the water for surface scum, foam, or a mat along the bottom of the waterbody and/or discoloured water and be aware that blooms can be blue, blue-green, green, red, brown or yellow in colour. Some look like paint streaks on the water, while others may not change the look of the water. If you see any growths in the water that fit these descriptions, it is best to avoid contact. 

What can be done to avoid algae blooms?

Though it is difficult to predict whether a bloom will form, most type of blue-green algae blooms require nutrient-rich waters to grow quickly. Limiting the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that enters the watercourse helps to protect against bloom formation. This can be done by limiting the use of fertilizers, setting up naturalized buffer zones around water bodies, performing regular maintenance on septic systems and cleaning up after pets. Visit HRM’s Canine for Clean Water Campaign to learn more about the importance of picking up after your dog.