By Hannah Brock
Toxins from harmful algal blooms are known to pollute water, but now researchers are looking at how they harm Great Lakes air.
And that also could have implications for human health, they say.
Particles of water emerge into the air when waves break, said Andrew Ault, a chemistry professor and researcher of aerosols at the University of Michigan. These particles sometimes contain toxins.
“This is one of the largest sources of particles getting kicked up into the atmosphere globally, but the Great Lakes are really different,” Ault said.
Scientists have studied particles emerging from the ocean for decades, he said. But, freshwater aerosols, like those from the Great Lakes, have only been studied for about a decade.
Aerosols are a liquid or a solid suspended in gas, said Haley Plaas, a doctoral student and aerosol researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For example, COVID-19 can be spread through aerosols and that is why people wear masks.
Plaas published a study about airborne toxins from algal blooms in December in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Her study’s most important takeaway is there is evidence that suggests harmful toxins and algae itself are found in the air, she said. Airborne algal toxins may be more of a threat in the Great Lakes than previously thought.
Scientists are unsure how much toxin is in the air, how weather or water quality affect it or what human health effects it could cause, Plaas said. Right now, more research is needed to understand what inhaling this toxin could mean for human respiratory health.
“A main concern is for people who live near these bodies of water that experience the blooms, and also for people using it recreationally, like jet skiing, boating, fishing,” Plaas said.
Recreation in the wake from a motor is especially troublesome because that’s a source of bubble bursting which can make the toxins airborne, she said.
Ault has published several papers on aerosols and is working on one that shows algae toxins in the Great Lakes are getting into the air. He plans to work with engineers and modelers to develop a risk system that would help people avoid poor air quality from these blooms.
Then he’d like to work with epidemiologists to relate exposure to health, he said. “So, that’s kind of the trajectory of where we see this going.”
In the meantime, don’t panic about airborne algae toxins, he said. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be cautious. If you know of a nearby algae bloom, don’t walk or participate in recreational activities near it.
A lack of research about harmful algal blooms and air quality is in part due to funding, Ault said.
“We need to show that it’s important for people to get excited to fund…
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