THUNDER BAY — The discovery of blue-green algae blooms in several lakes in the Thunder Bay district last month should serve as a wake-up call, says professor Greg Ross of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.
Ross is a biomedical research scientist whose work includes environmental monitoring and the study of cyanobacteria, the organism that causes potentially toxic blue-green algae.
He and a team are currently investigating a more efficient way of detecting harmful algae blooms, using sensors deployed on aircraft or drones.
"This summer was a really bad year for cyanobacteria blooms all over northern Ontario...this year we've certainly had lots of targets to evaluate the methods for doing our work," Ross said in an interview with Tbnewswatch.
Ontario environment ministry tests of water from blooms in Hawkeye, Lower Shebandowan and Icarus Lakes detected no toxins, but Ross said it's no reason to rest easy.
"It's something that people should be very cautions about. About half of all cyanobacteria species can produce toxins. If there's any cyanobacteria detected in the water...people should be careful what they use that water for, and take every precaution, because it's not unlikely that there will be toxins in the water. It's reasonably probable," he said.
Ross explained that algae blooms can change, so a toxin analysis of a sample taken one particular day won't necessarily reflect conditions a few days later.
Toxin analysis currently takes from five to seven days to complete.
"All of us need to make significant efforts to try to reduce the causes of the problem, which is basically nutrients in the water," Ross said.
"When a lake starts to bloom...it's really a wake-up call. We really shouldn't be celebrating that it's maybe cyanobacteria but not toxin-producing, because it could be just around the corner that you could get an infestation of cells that produce toxins."
Ross noted that Ontario waterways which previously did not produce blue-green algae are starting to do so now.
"It would be really smart to get a handle on this before it's a problem," he said.
Contributors to the formation of algae blooms include untreated water – such as from improperly-operating septic systems – and agricultural runoff.
But Ross said weather conditions this summer also likely contributed to the problem in northern Ontario.
"It was a relatively warm summer, but the number of hours of sunlight can influence it as well, even though the temperature is not that high," he said.
Ross added that, even though it was not a particularly wet summer, rainfall events which occurred every couple of weeks likely led to runoff which contained significant amounts of nutrients.
Lakehead University researcher Nathan Wilson is leading a multi-year study of whether cyanobacteria populations in Thunder Bay-area lakes are increasing,
Wilson is developing a list of lakes to investigate, but he's also considering asking the public to help by providing water samples.
He expects to release the details of what he describes as a "citizen-science" component of the project at a later date.