Michelle Kimmel, director of environmental health for Mercer County, Ohio, was the guest speaker at Thursday's meeting of the northeast chapter of the Indiana Environmental Health Association held in Decatur. (J Swygart photo)
Regional health officials on Thursday received an update on the devastating toxic algae bloom in a nearby Ohio lake and were offered tips on how to handle similar health-related incidents should they occur locally.
Michelle Kimmel, director of environmental health for Mercer County, Ohio, was a guest speaker at a meeting of the northeast chapter of the Indiana Environmental Health Association held at The Galley restaurant in Decatur. She related to the dozen health officials present how the two-year battle against toxic algae in Grand Lake St. Marys — which lies between Celina and St. Marys, Ohio — has been addressed by the county health department there.
The large, shallow lake was declared by state health officials to be potentially dangerous just before Memorial Day of 2009, due to the presence of cyanobacteria, a blue-green algae that contains neurotoxins will potentially can cause harm to the nervous systems and livers of humans. That determination was made based on the results of tests performed two years earlier, said Kimmel. Consequently, a public advisory was issued cautioning the public to refrain from all recreational activities — boating, swimming, fishing — in the lake.
Agricultural run-off was determined to be the single biggest contributor to the toxic algae bloom.
In the spring of 2010, the amount of algae in the lake exceed that of the previous year "and all optimism was gone" that a simple remedy would be found, Kimmel said.
The Mercer County health official said that while state regulators and governmental agencies have been active in developing an action plan for the lake, local health officials have been left to deal with a myriad of questions from the public surrounding health implications caused by the algae. Fourteen cases of human illness were reported, with one case directly linked to the toxins. Three dogs also died after exposure to the lake, and there were "some wildlife fatalities" which Kimmel said may have been related to the algae.
Public concerns ranged from the safety of drinking water wells in the lake watershed to recommended personal protective gear for first responders in the event of a lake-related emergency.
Human illness reports were followed up by health officials, and a public education campaign was launched aimed at home septic system owners, she said.
The action plan initiated by state officials called for increased funding for the installation of filter strips along streams in the watershed, and restrictions on manure hauling. Subsequently, many Mercer County farmers have been hauling their manure out of the watershed — to Indiana, Kimmel said.
A Jay County health official present at Thursday's meeting confirmed that he sees "load after load" of manure being brought into his county from neighboring Ohio.
Kimmel offered her comments to the Indiana health specialists because the blue green algae is not confined to Grand Lake St. Marys. She said that during the summer of 2010, some 23 Ohio lakes experienced similar algae blooms.
She said that while some algae has been discovered in the St. Marys and Wabash rivers, both of which are fed from Grand Lake St. Marys, health officials believe the algae will not survive in the rivers. The algae requires stagnant water and sunlight to prosper, she said.