Lake Invaders: Algae blooms turning America’s lakes into toxic pools

October 3, 2012

That’s ABC News’ headline for its recent investigation into the economic and health costs of toxic blue-green algae that is spreading across the US. The TV segment, which aired first on World News Tonight, is hard-hitting, laying the blame for blooms in the Great Lakes squarely on agricultural runoff.

Other national coverage has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, with Blue-Green Algae: Iridescent but Deadly by investigative reporter Jessica Marshall. Grist magazine covered it in  “Toxic green slime has taken over the lakes of America. Again.”

Resource Media has been working for months to shine a light on this blue-green algae epidemic, to illuminate the connections between how we grow our food, and our health and water quality. The work is funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to promote agricultural solutions to nitrogen pollution and climate change.

This year, we counted 20 states that issued health warnings to keep people out of waterways plagued by dangerous algae.  Researchers say the main sources of the growing problem are fertilizer and manure runoff.  Sewage, stormwater and industrial discharge also contribute, especially in urban areas, but those sources have been easier to manage.

To highlight the personal cost of green slime, we compiled stories and photos in this slideshow that has received over 2000 hits. Environmental Working Group blogger Don Carr called its visuals “horrific”.

People throughout the Midwest, and now a growing number of states all over the country, have struggled for years with the spread of blue-green algae.  The blooms create heavy losses for businesses and homeowners each year, and cause parents to worry about their kids’ safety in the water. Yet no federal agency is tracking the lake closures. It’s up to states to monitor and report on water safety, which they do with varying degrees of success.

To raise awareness, we worked with groups including Midwest Environment Advocates, Iowa Environmental Council, and Ohio Environmental Council to connect people impacted by the algae with reporters. We also curated this Scoopit page of headlines and info on the issue from across the US.

After creating the hashtag #greenslime, and asking advocates to use it, we hosted a live Twitter chat with Grist. High-ranking influencers used #greenslime, resulting in an impressive 773,400 impressions for 152 tweets. (Those #greenslime conversations can be viewed here).

We’ll continue working to raise national awareness about toxic algae’s impacts. As Patrick “Buzz” Sorge of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources told the Atlantic Monthly, “We know what it takes to fix this stuff. We just have to find the social and political will to get this done.”


Penelope Whitney