Vermont has spent nearly $200 million in the past five years to clean up its waterways. But the threats to water quality only seem to have intensified, reinforcing the questions in some quarters about whether the state really has the will to do what’s necessary to restore lakes and streams.
Much of the focus in recent years has been on efforts to reduce phosphorus pollution, especially in Lake Champlain, because that nutrient fuels sometimes-toxic algae blooms, turns the water green and closes beaches. Now there appears to be a new reason — or at least a newly discovered and scary-sounding one — to worry about the health effects of the blooms.
It’s been known for some time that cyanobacteria, aka blue-green algae, produces toxins that can become airborne and are suspected of being factors in causing chronic neurological diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and possibly Parkinson’s disease. Now new research centered on a cyanobacteria-plagued pond on Nantucket has tied blue-green algae to a different natural but poisonous compound, anatoxin-a. It’s been linked to cattle deaths in Canada and has earned the ominous moniker VFDF — for “very fast death factor.”
The Nantucket Land Council recently announced that air sampling in 2019 by its consulting scientists had, for the first time, detected the toxin airborne near a body of water. VFDF “can cause a range of symptoms at acute doses, including loss of coordination, muscular twitching and respiratory paralysis, and has been linked to the deaths of livestock, waterfowl and dogs from drinking contaminated water,” the council announced earlier this month.
It’s “quite likely” that researchers would find the same toxin near parts of Lake Champlain and other Vermont bodies of water hit by cyanobacteria blooms, said Dr. Elijah Stommel, a neurologist at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical center. Stommel has been one of the leading researchers examining links between cyanobacteria and ALS.
“If you get a bad enough bloom, [it] should aerosolize into the air around Lake Champlain as easily as it can into the air around Nantucket,” Stommel said.
Is anyone checking in Vermont to see whether this might be happening? State toxicologist Sarah Vose first cautioned against exaggerating the danger found in Nantucket. Vose said the study was limited and detected the…