CyanoAlert

29 March 2011

The week started out with two South African articles, both highlighting the water quality problems and the lack of skills to address same, particularly in our dams.  Both of these received precious little coverage – a characteristic of the inability of the South African press to understand and address issues of real concern – but which may not be “headline grabbers” right now.  All too many reporters are still grubbing around for more on the AMD issue!  I find that most reporters really struggle to understand what risks water quality really embodies!  It is heartening to note that reports by others such as the CSIR are starting to echo what people like myself have been saying for the past 15 years!

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CyanoAlert

21 March 2011

The five-week algal bloom in Lake Bolac (Victoria, Oz) has dissipated, much to the relief of the local festival planners.  For Lake Winnipeg (Canada), algal blooms are predicted in the coming summer following floods during the wet season. Lake Eildon (Australia) is experiencing its second algal bloom of the current season.

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Blue-green algae, Alzheimers and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease)

18 March 2011

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are on the increase globally.  HABs occur when large masses of potentially toxic algae develop in freshwater or marine environments. Typically these blooms are fuelled by increasing human pollution of our water resources, most commonly inadequately-treated wastewater, leading to high concentrations of plant nutrients in our dams and rivers.  A large percentage of South Africa’s water resources are already impaired by the sustained presence of blue-green algae.

Blue-green algae produce a large variety of toxins, singularly or in combination.  Recently it has become apparent that all types of blue-green algae produce an unusual neurotoxin, called beta-methyl-amino-alanine, BMAA.  BMAA in nature is only produced by blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). BMAA is neurotoxic and destroys nerve neurons (e.g. Vyas and Weiss 2009).

Research during the past 40 years has sought to link BMAA with motor neuron disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Parkinsons Disease (the so-called ALS-PDC, ALS/Parkinson’s Disease Dementia Complex).  This research has focussed on three locations in the western Pacific where considerably higher than normal incidences of these diseases occur (e.g. Bradley and Cox 2009).  BMAA has been measured in the brains of ALS-PDC cases, but not in control brain tissue, in the aforementioned clusters, as well as in Canada and elsewhere (e.g. Banack et al. 2009).  The effect of BMAA in Parkinson’s symptoms has been confirmed by dosing rats with the toxin (Bradley and Mash 2009).

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CyanoAlert

13 March 2011

In China, Lake Taihu will see expenditure of some US$700 million this year to tackle the burgeoning eutrophication problems (see also here on China’s water quality problems).  Sri Lanka is stepping up water quality monitoring. In Delaware (USA), attempts to impose meaningful water quality protection buffers and landuse reforms were overruled in a case brought by the local county against the regulator.  Similar struggles against common sense are in play in Florida (where politicians are ‘muddying the waters ‘) and inWest Virginia and Wisconsin , while in Washington State fertilizer bans are imminent (see also here for more on fertilizer restrictions in the US).  On a more positive note,Michigan is recruiting volunteers to assist with its monitoring of lake condition – the use of volunteer monitors has long been of value in the US (see also here on the Great Lakeswater quality crisis).  Phosphorus concentrations are reportedly increasing in lakes in Nova Scotia.

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Now water quality concerns are ‘scaremongering’ !

13 March 2011

This week Business Day boldly ventured into new territory beyond AMD and addressed water quality in general.  Apart from a Mayan calender-ish prediction of undrinkability in 19 years, the article was correct and balanced.  The national regulator’s mouthpiece, however, declared the concerns to be ‘scaremongering’.  Now we know there are at least three cards in the governments pack, the ‘race’ card, the ‘theres no crisis card’ and the latest, the ‘scaremongering’ card.  The same mouthpiece made a startlingly dismissive comment in saying “we tell people not to drink from streams” (what do they do when they have no choice??).

The aforementioned response is further dismissive of both the concerns expressed (the DWAE wilfully decline to engage with anyone who expresses an opinion different to theirs) and the growing world-wide concerns about water quality (see example here). DWAE, while admitting that treatment is a huge issue,  definitely does not understand that ‘prevention is better than cure’ , i.e. stop the pollution from getting into our dams, then the challenges of water treatment will not be so onerous. Will our regulator provide an unqualified assurance that SANS241 addresses chemicals of “emerging concern” , including veterinary and human pharmaceuticals, flame retardants and pthalates used to make plastic flexible, plus biological (algal) estrogens and BMAA?  I doubt it.

Pointers from SAWEF 2011

8 March 2011

The South African Water and Energy Forum (SAWEF) recently held a two-day symposium dealing with  critical changes facing South Africa – towards a sustainable SA. It’s time for action! I was unable to attend this meeting but was keen to discern the extent to which water quality issues were identified as components of these challenges. To this end the organizers kindly made available copies of the plenary presentations delivered at the event.

It is always difficult to fully assess the intentions and stories of presenters just from their PowerPoint presentations.  I have trouble with my own!  Nonetheless, I have distilled the following from the material provided to me (not all were relevant to my theme):

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Why is eutrophication a problem?

4 March 2011

Today I was asked “why is eutrophication a problem, why should we worry about it?”. The very nature of this query illustrates just how serious this particular problem is in South Africa.

Elsewhere on this blog I have dealt with what eutrophication is – in essence, dams or lakes with too much food in the form of nutrients that plants and algae need – resulting in the overproduction of organic matter.  Any organism that eats too much will suffer.  Take the simple example of people who consume food in excess – they become overweight, prone to obesity and other disorders, increasingly prone to illness and their general quality of life deteriorates.  Parallels to these problems may be drawn to the situation that arises in our dams.

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CyanoAlert

3 March 2011

Concern is starting to spread regarding the influence that climate change will have on algal growth in already overfed lakes (see here).  A rigorous analysis conducted in Denmark has provided initial values just how serious this could be (and thats in Denmark! – imagine what it will be like in the warmer, drier bits).  Equally, the warnings about oestrogenic activity in cyanobacteria are receiving increasing attention.

Algal alerts have been issued in Australia for Farmers CreekToonumbar Dam,  while a general warning has been issued for all farmers to be alert for algal blooms in their dams.  The warning for Lake Eildon has been lifted (see also here).   In New Zealand a warning has been issued for Hamilton Lake.

On the prevention side, a number of initiatives (mostly in the USA) are starting up or continuing:  Attention continues to be drawn to the dangers of over-fertilization with phosphorus (South Africa is a phosphorus surplus area so additional applications need to be made with caution – i.e. don’t fertilize in excess of what the crops actually need and can assimilate) (see also here);  tougher nutrient controls are being considered in St Lucie (Florida); the Audubon Society (synonymous with good fertilization practices), are learning more about cyanobacteria; the restoration of Lake Champlain (numerous references in this blog) has been (rightly) dubbed a societal moral responsibility; in Bellingham (Washington State), a ban on phosphorus in lawn fertilizers has been passed; in Utah attempts to repeal the ban on phosphorus in dishwasher detergents has failed for the third time (good to see some common sense prevailing) readers of this blog may remember clever Steve Sandstrom who believes that “the environmental harm of phosphorus is overblown, and can actually improve air quality because it helps plants grow” (with this level of intelligence no wonder they were confused about Weapons of Mass Destruction);