Most of the year, Idaho’s lakes and reservoirs are safe to enjoy. But when water temperatures increase, as they typically do in July and August, and the right type of nutrients are available, some bodies of water can produce blooms of harmful bacteria that can be dangerous for humans, pets, livestock, and wildlife. Those blooms are called cyanobacteria harmful algal blooms, or HABs for short. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is currently listing 12 bodies of water with health advisories in Idaho.
What causes harmful algal blooms?
The blooms are caused by bacteria that can produce toxins. The blooms are also referred to as cyanobacterial blooms. When weather conditions are calm and there is an increase in water temperature and nutrients, bacteria can rapidly increase and produce a bloom. Blooms can occur at any time, but they most often occur in late summer or early fall.
What do these blooms look like?
They can be blue, bright green, brown, or red and may look like paint or anti-freeze floating on the water. As the bloom develops, it may look like foam, scum, or mats on the surface of lakes and ponds.
What are the symptoms of an exposure to a bloom?
The most common health effects are skin and eye irritation. Other more severe effects can include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Stomach pain
- Numbness and tingling in lips, fingers, and toes
If you experience mild irritation, rinse with clean water immediately. If you experience severe symptoms, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Are the symptoms the same for animals?
Pets and livestock exposed to blooms may show symptoms such as:
- Foaming at the mouth
- Difficulty breathing
If your pet comes in contact with a bloom, rinse them with clean, fresh water immediately. If they start to have symptoms, call a veterinarian. In severe cases, animals can die within minutes and up to several hours after they have been exposed to harmful blooms.
Is it safe to eat fish from a lake with a bloom?
If you choose to fish in water with a bloom, wear protective clothing such as gloves or waders, and wash your hands thoroughly with clean water. Information about the risk of eating fish from affected waters is limited. However, fish fillets are less likely to accumulate toxins compared to other parts of the fish. If you decide to eat fish from affected waters:
- Remove the skin, organs, and fatty deposits from the fish.
- Avoid cutting into organs while you’re cleaning the fish.
- Rinse the fillets with clean water before you cook the fish.
What should we know to avoid a bloom?
- Be sure to look at the water before anyone gets in it. If it has an unusual color or looks questionable, do not go in or allow your children, pets, or livestock to go in or even near it.
- Check current information on potential blooms, by visiting Idaho DEQ HAB’s website.
- Avoid any water sports in areas with harmful algal blooms.
- Do not use untreated water for drinking, bathing, cleaning, or cooking. Boiling water that has been contaminated by a bloom will not remove the toxins, and it may cause more toxins to be released.
- Remember: “When in doubt, stay out.”
- Harmful Algal Blooms
- Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Report and view HABs near you
- Idaho Fish Consumption Advisory information
Brigitta Gruenberg is a health program specialist in the Environmental Health Program, Division of Public Health, Department of Health and Welfare.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening the health, safety, and independence of Idahoans. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.