Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) can cause illness in people and pets

State agencies seek public’s help to locate Harmful Algal Blooms
Some varieties can sicken humans and kill pets and livestock

As we savor the last few weeks of summer, forest fires aren’t the only menace that can spoil a day in the great outdoors. Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are a seasonal phenomenon on Montana’s lakes, reservoirs and ponds that can make people sick and even kill pets and livestock.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are enlisting the public’s help with identifying suspected HAB sites. On Friday, the two agencies launched a HAB reporting website – www.hab.mt.gov – as well as a 24-hour hotline at 1-888-849-2938.

“Harmful Algal Blooms can present a health risk to people and animals,” said Laura Williamson, state epidemiologist at DPHHS. Direct skin contact or inhalation of the toxic blue-green algae may cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, or throat and people may experience respiratory symptoms after exposure. Nationally, there have been no human deaths caused by HAB exposure; however, animal deaths, such as livestock, pets and wildlife, have been cause by HABs.

“In addition to educating folks about the danger, we’re asking the public to be our eyes out in the field so we can respond quickly and hopefully prevent people, pets or livestock from getting sick,” Williamson said.

In addition to reporting basics, such as the time and date that an algal bloom is observed, the website allows users to upload photos of the bloom and pinpoint the GPS location. The site also includes the phone number for Poison Control, which should be called immediately if a HAB-related illness is suspected in a person or animal.

Blooms of potentially toxic blue-green algae appear as “pea soup,” “grass clippings,” or “green latex paint.”  The algae usually are suspended in the water column or aggregated into floating mats; they do not grow from the bottom as do mosses or “water weeds.” Algae bloom in abundance this time of year on Montana’s ponds, lakes and reservoirs. While not all varieties are harmful, some can produce dangerous cyanotoxins.

The new Montana HAB reporting website will allow the public to help with early identification. When a HAB is suspected, DEQ will assist DPHHS with investigation and analysis to determine whether an algal bloom is a cyanotoxin-producing species and whether levels are of concern. If the HAB is in a public lake or pond, DPHHS will determine whether to issue a warning or closure. Over time, information gathered via the website and hotline will help the agencies with identification, early warning and prevention.

DEQ is involved in Montana’s HAB outreach and prevention efforts because it is the agency responsible for protecting Montana’s waterways from excess nitrogen and phosphorous – the two nutrients responsible for sparking algal blooms. Scientists believe HABs are becoming more common, and more toxic, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2014, a HAB in Lake Erie left nearly 500,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio, without access to the public water supply for nearly three days. In the fall of 2015, a HAB covered 636 miles of the Ohio River, producing a toxin that can kill cattle.

“Nationally this issue has gotten so much attention,” said Eric Urban, DEQ Water Quality Planning Bureau Chief. In Montana, Hebgen Lake Reservoir had a confirmed HAB last summer that lasted into October with “alarming levels” of cyanotoxins, Urban said.

How to report a HAB:

If you think a lake or pond shows signs of a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB), keep children and pets out of the water. If you suspect a HAB-related illness in a person or animal, including livestock, call Poison Control immediately at 1-800-222-1222.

To learn more about HABs or to report a suspected HAB, visit www.hab.mt.gov or call 1-888-849-2938. You may also report a suspected HAB by emailing HAB@mt.gov