- Associated Press - Friday, August 21, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The number of Iowa public beaches affected by toxic algae blooms reached a record this summer and public health officials confirmed Friday that they are investigating nine cases of possible human exposure.

Toxic blue-green algae, increasingly a problem in lakes and ponds in many states, can cause skin irritation, nausea, liver damage and respiratory problems for people. Pets and livestock ingesting the toxin can die.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has posted 27 beach advisory warnings this summer due to blue-green algae blooms, a record that tops the 24 warnings posted in 2013.

“We’re seeing more severe blooms and we think more toxic blooms as well,” said Mary Skopec, who directs the beach monitoring program for the DNR. She said many other states also are dealing with the problem.

Blue-green algae blooms are believed to be caused by a combination of warmer temperatures and too much fertilizer and manure running off of farms and other pollution. Algae blooms sometimes emit a toxin called microcystin which has been known to cause skin irritation and sicken people who swallow the water during swimming or breathe in water droplets containing the toxin.

Since the Iowa Department of Public Health began tracking exposure to microcystin in 2009, cases have been reported each year, said spokeswoman Polly Carver-Kimm. The agency is investigating nine cases this year “to determine if they can be classified as suspected cases of exposure for 2015.”

DPH records show three suspected cases in 2009, five human and three animal cases in 2010, 14 cases in 2011 and two cases in 2012. Statistics for 2013 and last year haven’t yet been compiled, Carver-Kimm said.

Since 2006, the DNR has issued 139 beach warnings for high levels of microcystin. Nearly two-thirds were posted just in the past four years and five Iowa beaches were posted for the first time this year.

Skopec says she’s heard unofficial reports of at least two dog deaths attributed to contact with blue-green algae this year and Kansas officials have reported several dog deaths.

The DNR tests 40 state-owned beaches in Iowa but there are more than 130 lakes widely used for recreation by the public owned by cities, counties and others that are not tested, Skopec said. In addition, thousands of private lakes and farm ponds could harbor toxic algae.

“We recommend that if you are in an area where it’s visibly showing masses of algae or a blue-green paint color, you should avoid contact with the water and keep pets away from it,” she said.

Environmental groups said it’s a clear sign more should be done to protect the water.

“To reduce the occurrence of these harmful algae blooms we must reduce the phosphorus pollution coming from farms, city lawns and urban and industrial wastewater that is feeding the algae,” said Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council.

Fifteen state-operated beaches have signs posted that swimming is not advised, according to a DNR report released Thursday. Thirteen are due to excessive E. coli bacteria levels, an indicator the water is contaminated with human or animal feces. Two are due to toxic algae blooms.

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