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To Swim or Not To Swim…

Posted by Stephanie A. Smith, Ph.D. on Tue, Aug 06, 2013 @ 02:27 PM

Motor Boat HABThis morning on the news I saw a report about Buckeye Lake here in Ohio, where our EPA and DNR have recommended that people avoid swimming at the Lake’s beautiful beaches due to concerns about toxic blue green algae.  This is arecreational public health advisory, meaning generally that the toxin concentrations are high, but not high enough to issue a no contact advisory.  The difference between the two advisories, with respect to the toxin concentrations, can be found on page 8 of this document from the Ohio EPA.  The advisory was reported last week in our newspaper, but the interesting thing about this morning’s news was the interviews of citizens who were there because they were boating on Buckeye Lake, and the reporter asking whether they were concerned.  One guy’s response, as he pulled his boat away from a dock to head out for some fun, said, “Where is it?  I don’t see it.”  I think we could safely translate his response to mean he wasn’t concerned (and since I’m not actually a journalist I will take that liberty), which might be OK since he was neither elderly, a child, nor likely immunocompromised.

However, these reasons did not seem to be at the heart of his decision, and his response points to the need for public education and awareness regarding HABs.  The guy interviewed for the morning news really can’t see an immediate or acute problem on this beautiful lake that he’s probably been to for years of summers.  He probably won’t get sick when he gets home, or if he does who knows whether it’s because of too much beer, bad hot dogs, too much sun, or toxic cyanobacteria.  Cancer, one of the risks of exposure to these toxins, doesn’t pop up overnight, after all.  And that’s the challenge faced by our officials, whose only aim is to protect the public that includes their friends and family.  Everyone has their own threshold for risk, and it’s based upon our personal attitudes, but also our knowledge and understanding of the risks.

If you are a little less cavalier than our friend on the morning news, and would like to be better educated about HABs, I’m proud to say that Ohio has one of the best sources of information, at the Ohio EPA Algae Information for Recreational Waters website.  Many states have similar informative websites, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is a notable one I’ve visited recently.  In coming weeks we will produce a more extensive white paper regarding similar public resources where you can get more information.  In the meanwhile, if you want a more technical perspective, my own recent blogs might be of interest to you, and Beagle’s Facebook Page is a veritable repository of reports and updates from across the country.

I’m not going to advise anybody on whether they should or shouldn’t swim in a lake that is affected by a HAB; that’s not my line of business.  However, I strongly advise people to educate themselves, trust the public officials who are in a position to offer advice and have no motivation other than the public good, and make an informed decision.  Please do all you can to keep yourself and your family safe this summer.

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