Harmful algal blooms create dangerous toxins

photo of algal bloom

URBANA, Ill. – Health officials are urging those with plans to get on the water this summer to watch out for harmful algal blooms.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency reported high levels of the toxin microcystin in the Illinois River at the Starved Rock Lock & Dam on June 25. Follow-up tests have shown reduced levels of the toxin at this site, but more blooms are possible. 

Harmful algal blooms, also known as “red tide,” happen when some types of blue-green algae grow out of control or “bloom.” These blooms can happen in lakes, rivers, and oceans. Not all algal blooms are harmful, but some produce the toxins microcystin or cylindrospermopsin that pose a health risk to people and animals. When algal blooms die, they remove oxygen in the water which can kill fish and other wildlife.

Harmful algal blooms can occur naturally, but may be a result of fertilizer runoff, water flow modifications, and climate change.  

University of Illinois Extension and Illinois Indiana Sea Grant coordinate projects that work to reduce loading nutrient such as nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways that contributes to algal blooms as part of the Illinois EPA’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, says C. Eliana Brown, Extension water outreach specialist. Watershed outreach associates are stationed in the state’s two priority watersheds, the Mississippi River and Rock River, where they work with community partners to put practices in place that reduce the pollutants that end up in waterways as part of agricultural or urban runoff.

“Our job is to work with farmers and educate them on nutrient management strategies,” says Haley Haverback-Gruber, watershed outreach associate serving Henry, Mercer, Rock Island, and Stark Counties. “We try to get stakeholders motivated to create a watershed management plan for their area.”

Extension and Sea Grant staff identify causes and sources of watershed pollutants, including agricultural areas and homeowner runoff into urban stormwater systems.

Haverback-Gruber says that anyone interested in watershed planning should contact their local soil and watershed conservation district to see if they have a watershed plan in place or if they can get involved in starting one.

Beachgoers and boaters should get out of the water immediately if they see blue-green algal blooms that may look like blue or green paint in the water, thick puffy surface foam, or swirling colors in the water. Suspected algal blooms can be reported to the Illinois EPA using the Bloom Watch app.

The young, elderly and immunocompromised are most at risk if they touch, swallow, or inhale water with toxins. Symptoms include rashes, hives, diarrhea, vomiting, coughing or wheezing according to the Illinois EPA. Anyone who has been exposed should shower immediately and contact the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.


SOURCE: C. Eliana Brown, Watershed Outreach Associate
SOURCE: Haley Haverback-Gruber, Watershed Outreach Associate
WRITER: Emily Steele, Media Communications Coordinator

ABOUT ILLINOIS EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and communities to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.