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This map shows mycrocystis levels in Lake Erie in August of 2014 when Toledo residents were told they couldn't drink the water.

Ongoing HABRI research providing insights into water quality challenges

With three years of work under its belt, the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative (HABRI) has yielded useful results for Ohio residents. HABRI researchers are working directly with water treatment plant operators to provide practical guidance about producing safe drinking water for cities and towns dealing with algal toxins. Other scientists are examining lesser-known potential sources of algal toxin exposure and its human health impacts. And the initiative has driven ongoing collaborations between universities and agencies, positioning Ohio to better prevent and manage future crises.

“HABRI also continues to fund research projects that address harmful algal blooms and their impacts on the state,” said Kristen Fussell, assistant director for Ohio Sea Grant, which co-manages the initiative.

In early 2018, $4 million was awarded to 21 research teams studying topics that range from the creation of new therapies for toxin-induced liver problems to the impacts of toxic cyanobacteria on young Lake Erie sport fish.

For example, R. Michael McKay at Bowling Green State University leads a project to quantify the effects that cyanophages (viruses that infect cyanobacteria) have on cyanobacterial toxin release. When viruses infect a cell, they eventually cause it to break open (a process called lysis) to spread more viruses to neighboring cells. In the case of cyanobacteria, lysis also releases toxin into the water, creating additional challenges for treatment plants that need to address a harmful algal bloom at their water intake.

The project directly addresses a concern raised by the City of Toledo water treatment plant after the 2014 “do not drink” advisory. McKay and his team recently published a paper showing that a viral infection may have worsened the problem then, and will now examine the factors that lead viruses to cause cell lysis and release cyanobacterial toxins into the water.

While many of the selected projects approach the harmful algal bloom problem from new angles, some continue previously funded HABRI research to dig deeper into the questions they’re asking. April Ames and Michael Valigosky at The University of Toledo lead one of those projects, examining the connection between potential exposure to algal toxins through recreational activities and self-reported health impacts like skin rashes or respiratory issues.

The researchers have already collected information from 327 individuals who use Lake Erie for recreation or during work to determine when, where and how different kinds of water exposure may be happening. The end goal in the next phase of the research is to connect those potential exposures to any self-reported health impacts, such as skin rashes or respiratory issues, which are common examples of health effects caused by cyanotoxins.

This information can be used to target educational outreach efforts to specific audiences most likely to be exposed to cyanotoxins during recreational activities like boating or swimming, and will be used to evaluate potential exposure and health effects in the upcoming stage of the project.

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