Oregon is known for its pristine drinking water — so good that some corporations want to bottle it for sale. But a new threat has emerged: toxins produced by algae blooms.
State and local officials were caught off-guard in late May when cyanotoxins were discovered for the first time in treated drinking water in Oregon — Salem’s water supply. Officials were slow to alert the public, and their initial announcements created confusion. Residents were outraged, and rightly so.
Most people could drink the water without becoming ill, but the botched communications left them wondering how public officials would respond in the event of a true disaster, such as a devastating earthquake.
Since then, the state and city of Salem have gotten their act together. To her credit, Gov. Kate Brown soon pushed the issue by declaring an emergency — an administrative action that allowed the Oregon National Guard to provide water and enabled other state agencies to help out.
On Friday, the Oregon Health Authority issued temporary rules requiring water suppliers around the state to regularly test for cyanobacteria — harmful algae blooms — and alert the public when cyanotoxins are found. The list of affected systems includes Warrenton and Seaside.
“In an era of climate change that we’re seeing, these kinds of things are likely to be more frequent, longer-lasting, more intense, and it’s an emerging threat we need to respond to,” OHA Director Patrick Allen said.
The rules took effect Sunday and will last for the rest of the year while permanent regulations are written.
Too little research has been done on toxic algal blooms and their health effects on humans, but the OHA was smart to act.
As for our state’s capital, Salem was ahead of the curve in testing for cyanotoxins. Few Oregon lakes and rivers are monitored routinely for the harmful algae blooms and resulting toxins, which can cause symptoms similar to food poisoning. Still, the blooms have been found in 16 Oregon counties during the past five years.
Drinking water for Salem and several other communities comes from the South Santiam River. The river flows from Detroit Lake, a popular recreation area that has been under on-and-off health advisories for algal blooms this year.
The city of Salem is operating round-the-clock water distribution sites — dispensing clean water from neighboring Keizer’s wells — while installing a treatment process to remove cyanotoxins.
Meanwhile, Douglas County recently issued a permanent health advisory about potential cyanotoxins in the South Umpqua River and Lawson Bar. Other recent advisories included Lake Billy Chinook, Upper Klamath Lake and Dorena Reservoir.
Oregon’s healthy, plentiful water has been in sharp contrast to much of the world. But we dare not take it for granted.
Location: Since 2013, harmful algal blooms have been found at various times in Baker, Coos, Clackamas, Clatsop, Deschutes, Douglas, Jackson, Jefferson, Klamath, Lake, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Morrow and Multnomah counties. However, most Oregon lakes and rivers are not regularly monitored for cyanotoxins.
Appearance: Algal blooms generally appear as thick foam or scum on the water surface. They may resemble pea soup. They can be bright green, bluish-green, white or brownish-red.
Exposure: Cyanotoxins can be ingested, whether accidentally while swimming or by drinking the tainted water. Inhalation is a low risk. Cyanotoxins cannot be absorbed through the skin but can create a skin rash.
Health effects: Symptoms can include numbness, tingling and dizziness that can lead to difficulty breathing or heart problems and require immediate medical attention. Skin irritation, weakness, diarrhea, nausea, cramps and fainting should also receive medical attention if they persist or worse.
Vulnerable people and pets: When cyanotoxins are present in recreational water, children and pets are at increased risk for exposure due to their small size and high level of activity. In drinking water, cyanotoxins create a greater risk to children under age 6, adults age 65 and older, people with compromised immune systems or liver conditions, pregnant or nursing mothers, people on dialysis and other medically fragile individuals, as well as pets.
Typical camping or home-use water filters do not remove cyanotoxins. Boiling may increase their concentration.
Source: Oregon Health Authority