EPA Planning to Issue Health Advisories On Harmful Algal Blooms by May 2015

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By Amena H. Saiyid

Sept. 30 — The Environmental Protection Agency is aiming to issue by May 2015 drinking water health advisories for cyanobacteria, the harmful forms of blue-green algae that contaminated water supplies in Toledo, Ohio, and resulted in a weekend-long ban in early August, an agency official said Sept. 29.

The agency is working on health advisories for microcystin L-R and cylindrospermopsin, with plans to have them out before the season of the harmful algal blooms begins next year, Betsy Southerland, director of the EPA Office of Science and Technology with the Office of Water, told participants at a Clean Water Act policy developments discussion in New Orleans.

All three forms of cyanobacteria, or harmful algae blooms, release toxics. In particular, freshwater cyanobacterial blooms that produce highly potent cyanotoxins are known as cyanobacterial HABs (cyanoHABs). These species are capable of producing compounds that are hepatotoxic (affect the liver), neurotoxic (affect the nervous system) and acutely dermatotoxic (affect the skin), according to EPA.

States Urged to Develop Nutrient Criteria.

EPA currently doesn't regulate the cyanotoxins released by these algae, but it has been encouraging states to develop numeric nutrient criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus that fuel the growth of such algae in source waters.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has declared pollution arising from nitrogen and phosphorus to be a priority.

The discussion was held as part of the Water Environment Federation's Technical and Exhibition Conference, which runs Sept. 27 to Oct. 1 in New Orleans.

Southerland said a contractor-led peer review of the health advisories had just started.

Following Southerland was Peter Grevatt, director of the EPA Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, who said a combination of aging infrastructure and threats to source water from nutrient pollution is a “very dangerous combination ” playing out in terms of public health.

Grevatt said there are 700 water main breaks every day, about 200,000 a year. He referred to the Freedom Industries spill of a toxic chemical in West Virginia in January followed by the contamination of drinking water supplies by harmful algal blooms in Toledo in August.

He said he agreed with McCarthy that the contamination of drinking water supplies in Toledo didn't come as a surprise.

Also on the panel was Benita Best-Wong, director of EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds, who said the agency had launched a public health campaign to alert the public about the dangers of swimming and engaging in other recreational activities with waters with harmful algae blooms.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in New Orleans at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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