Water Safety Tips for the 4th of July Holiday

With warm weather predicted for the 4th of July weekend, we know a refreshing dip in a lake or a river paddle will be on the top of many of your to-do lists. But unfortunately, we must warn you to be on the lookout for harmful algal blooms in order to keep your families and pets safe this weekend.

Unfortunately, incidences of algal blooms are on the rise throughout the United States and the world due to nutrient pollution and warmer summers caused by global warming. Harmful algal blooms (HAB) are overgrowths of a type of algae called blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria) that can release toxins into the water. Blue-green algae toxins can cause sickness, or even kill people, pets and livestock, depending on the level of exposure to the toxin. Nutrient pollution from human activities is making the problem worse, leading to more severe blooms that occur more often.

Illinois HABs Reported in 2020

Already this summer, the Illinois EPA identified a HAB in the Illinois River near Starved Rock. Levels of the toxin microcystin were at 138 parts per billion (ppb), well above the 8 ppb health advisory established by the USEPA. This week, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has confirmed a blue-green algae bloom in Herrick Lake.

Many of the lakes in Lake County are also testing positive for toxic blue green algae at this time. Gloria Charland of the Sierra Club’s Woods and Wetlands Group and their Squaw Creek Clean Water Alliance (SCCWA) campaign reports this is right on schedule when compared to last year’s records. While there are a number of toxins produced by cyanobacteria, microcystin, a liver toxin, is the most common and the one tested for most often. This year SCCWA is also testing for anatoxin-a, a neurotoxin. 

Be on the lookout for Harmful Algal Blooms

HABs have a strong green color and a paint-like appearance. Photo: IEPA

Blue-green algal blooms can look like blue or green paint spilled into the water. They can also smell with a grassy, fishy, or a septic odor. Learn more about identifying HABs at the IEPA and USEPA webpages on HABs.

Protect Yourself from HABs

If the water looks green or scummy, stay out of it. Children are more susceptible to the toxins than adults so take special care to protect them from any water that looks suspect. People can react to the toxin by swallowing it, skin contact and even by inhaling airborne droplets without touching the water. Symptoms include skin irritation, nausea, vomiting, throat irritation, allergic reactions, or difficulty breathing. The toxins can affect the liver and nervous system if ingested.  The IEPA says, “the safest thing to do is to treat every algal bloom as if it could be dangerous.” Don’t let pets or livestock drink the water or swim in it either. Toxins can also accumulate in fish so don’t fish in questionable waters.

If you think you, your child or pet has been exposed to HABs, shower them immediately. Contact your doctor or veterinarian if any poisoning symptoms occur and/or contact the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-12222 for advice.

Graphics in this post are taken from a USEPA/IEPA infographic. Check it out for more info.

Stay safe as you enjoy the 4th of July holiday!