Samples of blue-green algae taken in recent days from Seneca, Skaneateles, Canandaigua, Keuka and Owasco lakes exceeded the state’s threshold for “high toxins,” according to laboratory test results.
But the extent of the crisis that has mushroomed across the Finger Lakes since Sept. 15 is still not fully understood because the lab at the state College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse (SUNY-ESF) has been overwhelmed with thousands of samples that await testing from around the region. Results are only trickling in.
“They are snowed,” said Edwin Przybylowicz, who coordinates 80 volunteer lake monitors for Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association. “The lab is working its way through over 3,000 samples and I am not sure how the samples are being triaged.”
For example, SLPWA has sent the lab several dozen samples of confirmed harmful algal blooms, or HABs, from Seneca Lake — many more than a week ago. Results are in for only six of those samples, and five were classified as “high toxin.”
Those five samples all came from sites along the northwest shore of Seneca, from Dresden north to just below Geneva. To see an interactive map of Seneca Lake, click here.
In each case, the sample exceeded the state Department of Conservation’s “high toxin” threshold of 20 micrograms per liter for microcystin, which is produced by the cyanobacteria microcystis. Their microcystin values ranged from two times the state’s toxin threshold to 18 times.
Although the positive tests were all bunched in the northwest quadrant of the lake, that doesn’t mean other sections are clear. There were no toxin test results available for the rest of the lake as of mid-day Sept. 27.
The warm, calm days of September have triggered an unprecedented outbreak of HABs in all but three of the Finger Lakes — Hemlock, Canadice and Otisco (which had blooms earlier in the summer, but mysteriously not this month).
HABs are cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as blue-green algae, which often produce toxins that are harmful to people and their pets, particularly dogs.
The blooms were first reported in Seneca in 2015. Last year, several more were reported, including a few that produced laboratory-confirmed high toxins.
The lake appeared to have escaped this summer until the recent warm front created a near-perfect incubator, and blooms popped up in virtually every section of the lake.
“I can only blame it on the weather,” said Przybylowicz, a retired Kodak chemist who has served as Seneca Lake’s point man on HABs. “I thought we were home free this year. Nothing at all through July and August, and then the roof caved in.”
About two weeks ago, more than a dozen suspicious algae patches appeared along the lake’s eastern shore. When several were tested at the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, virtually all exceeded by 30-40 times the threshold the state has set for a cyanobacteria indicator.
But in the past week, the western side of the lake got hit as well. And many of the HABs-indicator readings for its blooms — in Dresden, Reed Point and Kashong Point, for example — were significantly higher than any earlier readings from the other side of the lake.
Meanwhile last week, more than a dozen new blooms were reported on both sides of the southern half of the lake, where SLPWA has fewer shoreline monitors. Samples from many of those latest sightings have been sent to FLI for tests to confirm that they are HABs.
The chemical marker the DEC uses to classify a bloom as a HAB is alpha chlorophyll. Any sample that tests above the threshold of 25 micrograms of “AC” per liter is presumed to be cyanobacteria.
Not all cyanobacteria blooms are toxic, but many are, especially ones that show exceptionally high readings of alpha chlorophyll. Confirmed HABs must undergo a separate test to determine whether they are producing the dangerous liver and neuro toxins that threaten people and their pets.
On its website, the DEC warns:
“Direct contact or breathing airborne droplets containing high levels of blue-green algal toxins during swimming or showering can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat and inflammation in the respiratory tract.”
Pets, in particular, are at risk, the agency says: “Because of their behavior, dogs are much more susceptible than humans to cyanobacterial poisoning. When toxins are present, dogs can be exposed to toxins by drinking the water, by eating washed up mats or scum of toxic cyanobacteria and by having skin contact with water. Dogs are often attracted to algal scum odors. After leaving the water, dogs can also be poisoned by grooming their fur and paws.”
For people, scientific studies have shown, exposure to toxins produced by cyanobacteria has been associated with irreversible neurological diseases, including as dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Officials at Geneva General Hospital in Geneva and Schuyler Hospital in Montour Falls said they had not received any complaints that appeared to be related to HABs exposure. Two veterinary clinics in Geneva also said they hadn’t treated any pets with HABs symptoms.
However, the death of a dog last summer in Rochester is now suspected to have been caused by HABs exposure, according to a report in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
The five-year-old pit bull dog Soraya spent her last afternoon splashing in the water and walking on the sand at Durand-Eastman beach. Without warning, she fell over, lapsed into a coma and died. The vet who treated Soraya diagnosed the algal poison anatoxin-a, although that was not definitive.
Tests at SUNY-ESF failed to confirm such an exposure, but the head of the lab said it would be almost impossible to detect. “My gut feeling is this actually was an algal intoxication,” said Gregory Boyer, a chemistry professor at the college and the region’s top HABs expert.
Not all HABs are the same type of cyanobacteria and they don’t all produce the same toxin. The five HABs samples from Seneca Lake that recently tested positive for toxins were high in microcystin, while a sixth was not.
Before this year, no more than six of the 11 Finger Lakes were ever hit with HABs in a single year. This year all 11 have confirmed HABs and at least five — so far — have confirmed high toxins.
The September HABs outbreak has been particularly traumatic at Skaneateles Lake, which provides unfiltered drinking water to the city of Syracuse.
That lake had never had a reported HABs outbreak before Sept. 15. But in recent days, microcystin levels for two HABs samples were nine and six times above the DEC’s “high toxin” threshold.
And water at the Syracuse system gateway at the north end of the lake showed trace levels of microcystin. Since then the city has been mixing its water with Lake Ontario water and then treating it with chloride. City officials said there has never been any threat to Syracuse drinking water.
Meanwhile, HABs samples from Keuka and Canandaigua lakes have also tested positive for “high toxins.”
HABs thrive in warm, calm air when the water is warm and full of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. But those conditions may be about to end when cooler, windier weather arrives in a day or two.