Is my water safe for kids when it has a harmful algae bloom?

Last month I talked about how algae can impact farm animals and pets. Now, let’s discuss our kids and family. Truth is, we all love to watch our kids swim in fresh water ponds and lakes. But many parents ask, “Is my water safe?” This question is especially common when a nearby pond or lake has signs of toxin-producing algae, such as the recent massive microcystis bloom in Lake Erie that made national headlines. These events are often referred to as “harmful algae blooms (HABs)” because the algae produce toxins, which are harmful, due to environmental factors which cause the algae to proliferate or “bloom.”  

Look for the signs to make sure your pond is not experiencing a HAB

Harmful algae blooms (HABs), often occur in lakes and ponds, typically with higher than average nutrient inputs, during the warm summer months.  These HABs are nothing to take lightly.  If children are exposed to these algal toxins, either by dermal contact or ingestion of water, serious health problems could result. In extreme situations, these toxins can cause death.  That’s way it is important to know the signs and act quickly.

Here are a couple of things to look for in children if you believe they may have been in contact with toxin-producing algae:

  • Gastrointestinal cramps, vomiting.
  • Presence of a skin rash or lesion

Please contact your child’s pediatrician immediately if you observe these symptoms after your child after swimming in a water body with an HAB!

Making sure your neighborhood’s pond is free of harmful algae

If you find your neighborhood pond is showing signs of toxic algae, posting a warning sign is not enough.  Water safety for you and your neighbors is too important to simply rely on a posted sign.  Be sure to warn parents whose children often play near the water.  Make a formal notice with your homeowner’s association (HOA) to make sure they are aware of the situation. It is possible that this could become a liability to the HOA, so they should be made aware of the algae bloom right away so that they can arrange for a professional to treat the HAB.

Making sure your personal pond is free of harmful algae

If you have a water feature around your home, here are a few important safety tips.

  • Learn as much as you can about algae blooms and how to spot them and catch them early.
    • Watch for an opaque pea soup green film.  This is usually indicative of a Microsystis bloom, which normally produces toxin.
    • Harmful algae is not always green. Lyngbya is a mat-forming algae which floats to the surface during the warm afternoons. It typically produces dermatoxins and is often dark green or brown.
    • If you learn that your child swam in a pond with an algae bloom, rinse him/her off with fresh water immediately.
    • Contact a professional applicator to treat the bloom as soon as you can.  If you prefer the DIY route, please read and follow all label restrictions carefully.  Due to the sheer size of the bloom, treating your entire lake or waterbody could reduce dissolved oxygen, stressing or killing fish.
    • Be proactive.  Treating earlier is more effective!  Many times, the HAB will persist and not go away on its own.
    • Think of your yard/neighborhood and water body as a mini-ecosystem.  Be mindful of inputs to your water body. Are you over-fertilizing your lawn?  Could you switch to a low-phosphorus lawn fertilizer?  Could pet waste be adding nutrients to the water and feeding the HAB?  Consider installing an attractive buffer of native aquatic plants, such as Pickerel weed or Bog iris, to remove excess nutrients from the water.

Unfortunately HABs are only one threat to your children enjoying a neighborhood pond or lake.  Dense growth of submerged aquatic vegetation can also be dangerous for young swimmers.  Children can become disoriented underwater or tangled in the vegetation and drown.  These types of infestations are typically associated with nonnative aquatic vegetation, which can be easily removed by a professional applicator service.

The bottom line: It’s smart to ask “is my water safe?”  Being proactive about the health of your water body goes hand in hand with looking out for your child’s well-being while still enjoying the great outdoors!