The Growing Threat of the Green Plague

Previous Article Next Article
November 28, 2017

Story at-a-glance

  • Despite government agencies spending billions of dollars to help farmers prevent fertilizer runoff, algae blooms are getting worse instead of better
  • Algae is growing out of control in so many areas of the U.S. that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called it a “major environmental problem in all 50 states” with “severe impacts on human health, aquatic ecosystems and the economy”
  • The city of Toledo, Ohio, and surrounding areas have become the first to report drinking water-associated disease outbreaks caused by harmful algal blooms

By Dr. Mercola

Algae are tiny aquatic organisms that, similar to plants on land, produce oxygen from photosynthesis. They're a common part of fresh and saltwater environments; most people have seen green "pond scum" at one point or another. Algae is not inherently bad, either. In fact, when in the proper balance with their environment, algae provide food and oxygen to marine life, such as fish.

However, when provided with an excess of nutrients, such as occurs when fertilizer runoff from farms contaminates waterways, algae can quickly grow out of control, causing environmental destruction along the way. As the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Ocean Service explains, a small amount (less than 1 percent) of algae blooms can produce harmful toxins that sicken marine life, people and pets.

Beyond this, algae blooms that don't produce toxins can still pose a threat by depleting oxygen from the water, blocking light to organisms lower in the water column and clogging fish gills.1

Algae is growing out of control in so many areas of the U.S. that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called it a "major environmental problem in all 50 states" with "severe impacts on human health, aquatic ecosystems and the economy."2 An AP investigation also revealed that, despite government agencies spending billions of dollars to help farmers prevent fertilizer runoff and circumvent the problem, algae blooms are getting worse instead of better.3

Despite Billions Spent, Toxic Algae Is Getting Worse

The AP investigation revealed alarming trends, including that levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runoff are getting higher in lakes and streams. The problem is both runoff from synthetic chemical fertilizers as well as the excessive amounts of manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that's often sprayed onto farm fields.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has spent more than $29 billion on incentive-based programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, to encourage farmers to stop polluting waterways.

Reportedly, about 500,000 farms have become "more environmentally friendly" since the program began in 2009, but there are about 2 million farms in the U.S. and only about 6 percent take part in the programs at any given time.4 While the agency paid out or pledged billions from 2009 to 2016 to curb runoff and water pollution from farms and livestock operations, the Chicago Tribune noted that "some of the lake's biggest algae blooms showed up during those seven years," continuing:

"The largest on record appeared in 2015, blanketing 300 square miles — the size of New York City. The previous year, an algae toxin described in military texts as being as lethal as a biological weapon forced a two-day tap water shutdown for more than 400,000 customers in Toledo [Ohio]. This summer, another bloom oozed across part of the lake and up a primary tributary, the Maumee River, to the city's downtown for the first time in memory."5

Meanwhile, while most factories are prohibited from releasing waste directly into waterways, a loophole in the Clean Water Act of 1972 does not make the same distinction for farm fertilizers that run off fields into lakes and streams.

The Chicago Tribune added, "Without economic consequences for allowing runoff, farmers have an incentive to use all the fertilizer needed to produce the highest yield, said Mark Clark, a University of Florida wetland ecologist. 'There's nothing that says, 'For every excessive pound I put on, I'll have to pay a fee.' There's no stick.'"6

Algae Blooms Contaminating Drinking Water

In 2014, citizens in Toledo, Ohio, were warned not to drink their tap water as it was found to contain significantly elevated levels of microcystins, caused by algae blooms in Lake Erie.7 Microcystins are nerve toxins produced by freshwater cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that can cause fever, headaches, vomiting and seizures.

The city and surrounding areas have become the first to report drinking water-associated outbreaks caused by harmful algal blooms, as highlighted in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) surveillance for waterborne disease outbreaks report.8

"The cyanobacterial toxin microcystin caused the largest reported toxin contamination of community drinking water in August 2013 and September 2014 and was responsible for extensive community and water disruptions," the CDC noted.9 The agency is now tracking harmful algal blooms (HABs) via its One Health Harmful Algal Bloom System (OHHABS), calling them an "emerging public health issue" and stating:

"Exposure to HAB toxins through water, food or air may cause a range of mild to severe symptoms in both humans and animals. HAB-associated exposures can result in symptoms that affect the skin, stomach and intestines, lungs and nervous system.

Animals, such as dogs, cattle, birds and fish, are likely to be affected before people during HAB events as they are more likely to drink from or swim in waters that contain HABs. People can be affected by HAB events from exposure during work or recreational activities, or from ingestion of contaminated water or food."10

Even in areas where algae blooms aren't apparent, nitrates from fertilizer runoff may still contaminate drinking water. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that removing nitrate from U.S. drinking water costs nearly $5 billion a year,11 which the industrial agriculture industry has been largely shielded from. A report released by the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) has attempted to summarize the related health risks of such nitrates in drinking water.12

Researchers reviewed over 100 studies on the health effects of nitrates in drinking water and found multiple studies linked them to birth defects, bladder cancer and thyroid cancer. While many of the health problems were found with nitrate levels higher than the drinking water standard of 10 mg/L, some studies suggested nitrate levels lower than the drinking water standard may still pose health risks.

About 15 percent of private wells in Iowa may have nitrate levels that exceed federal standards,13 and the EPA notes that reported drinking water violations for nitrates have nearly doubled in the last decade.14 Researchers are also looking into whether another toxin, BMAA (Beta-N-Methylamino-L-alanine), in blue-green algae may be linked to neurological diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease).15

Largest 'Dead Zone' in Gulf of Mexico Caused by CAFOs

In a report released by environmental group Mighty Earth, massive manure and fertilizer pollution churned out by meat giant Tyson Foods is blamed for causing the largest dead zone on record in the Gulf of Mexico.16 According to NOAA, the area of low oxygen, which can kill marine life, is nearly 9,000 square miles, which is about the size of New Jersey.17 Mighty Earth singled out Tyson and another meat giant, Smithfield, as top contributors to the dead zone for several key reasons:18

Fertilizer runoff has also been blamed for toxic algae taking over Florida coastlines. It's so prolific in some areas that blue-green algae can now be seen from space.19 In Florida, the algae bloom started in May 2016 in Florida's largest freshwater lake, Lake Okeechobee. The lake serves as a catchall for runoff from surrounding farms and neighborhoods. Excess septic waste, manure and fertilizer collect in the lake as a matter of course.

In addition to phosphorus-rich runoff from sugarcane fields, other agricultural runoff from cattle ranches, dairy farms, citrus groves and vegetable farms also finds its way into the lake. Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, stated that required pollution limits set for the lake have not been met since they were created in 2001.20 Phosphorus levels in the lake are supposed to be limited to 105 metric tons a year, for instance, but in 2015, they reached 450 tons.21

Lake Erie, Other Waterways Continue to Suffer From the 'Green Plague'

Toxic algae aren't confined to just one region. When U.S. Geological Survey scientists sampled 75 small streams in the southeastern U.S., the algal toxin microcystin was found in 39 percent of them,22 and in Lake Erie the algal blooms of 2017 were recorded as the third-largest on record.23 Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reported:24

"California last year reported toxic blooms in more than 40 lakes and waterways, the most in state history. New York created a team of specialists to confront the mounting problem in the Finger Lakes, a tourist magnet cherished for sparkling waters amid lush hillsides dotted with vineyards. Two cities reported algal toxins in their drinking water in 2016, a first in New York. More than half the lakes were smeared with garish green blooms this summer.

'The headlines were basically saying, 'Don't go into the water, don't touch the water,'' said Andy Zepp, executive director of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, who lives near Cayauga Lake in Ithaca. 'I have an 11-year-old daughter, and I'm wondering, do I want to take her out on the lake?'"

In the Lake Erie area, Ohio Northern University chemist Christopher Spiese and colleagues suggested that spikes in dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) runoff that have increased since the mid-1990s coincided with an increased use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide).

At the 2016 Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference, Spiese shared the results of his study, which found a significant correlation between DRP loads and the number of acres planted with herbicide-tolerant genetically engineered (GE) crops (which are heavily sprayed with Roundup). "For every acre of Roundup Ready soybeans and corn that you plant, it works out to be about one-third of a pound of P coming down the Maumee [watershed and into Lake Erie]," Spiese told Sustainable Pulse.25

Overall, the EPA states that about 15,000 water bodies have been identified that have "nutrient-related problems,"26 and many more probably have yet to be identified. Outside the U.S., meanwhile, algal blooms spanning thousands of miles have been recorded in China and Australia, while microcystin has been detected in more than 240 bodies of water in Canada. In Greece, Italy and Spain, algal blooms are also a problem and estimated to cost the economy $355 million annually.27

What's the Solution to the Green Plague?

The immediate solution to protect your drinking water is to install a water filter on your tap, but on a broader scale the solution is to stop the source of the pollution.

Even small changes, like the use of cover crops, can help to prevent soil erosion while absorbing excess fertilizer. Iowa has a voluntary program in place — the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy — to help control fertilizer runoff, but it's still in its beginning stages even though it began years ago. And, as mentioned, many have questioned whether voluntary programs go far enough.

Better land-use management that addresses fertilizer runoff, along with dramatic reductions in synthetic fertilizer use, will also be necessary. Fortunately, the effects of agricultural runoff on water quality are finally starting to be addressed. In some areas, farmers are trying new conservation methods to ward off toxic runoff and protect water quality. This includes strategies such as building "artificial wetlands and underground 'bioreactors' to capture nutrients in drainage systems," according to The Christian Science Monitor.28

Others have started using cover crops and no-till methods to slow fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Certain states have additional rules of their own, such as Minnesota, which requires farmers to plant 50-foot buffer zones between crops and public waterways and Maryland, which requires farmers to keep livestock from defecating in streams feeding the Chesapeake Bay.29

Other farmers are swapping flood irrigation, which drenches fields with water, allowing the excess to run off into nearby streams, for drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to roots of the plants, cutting water waste and pollution at the same time.

On an individual level, you can help by buying food from farmers who are using natural methods and soil-regenerative techniques, such as no till, cover crops, composting and grass fed livestock integration. This will naturally help you to eat better too, since typically only real whole foods are grown this way (while most processed foods are the product of CAFOs and destructive industrial nitrogen-fertilizer-laden agriculture).

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service, Are all algal blooms harmful?
  • 2 U.S. EPA, Harmful Algal Blooms
  • 3, 4, 5, 6, 24, 29 Chicago Tribune November 16, 2017
  • 7 NPR November 19, 2016
  • 8, 9 MMWR November 10, 2017 / 66(44);1216–1221
  • 10 CDC One Health Harmful Algal Bloom System
  • 11 Nitrogen: the double-edged sword by Christine Jones, PhD (PDF)
  • 12 Iowa Environmental Council September 29, 2016
  • 13 The Des Moines Register September 30, 2016
  • 14, 26 U.S. EPA Nutrient Pollution
  • 15 TCPalm April 14, 2016
  • 16, 18 Mighty Earth, Heartland Destruction
  • 17 NOAA August 2, 2017
  • 19 Gizmodo July 11, 2016
  • 20 Tampa Bay Times July 1, 2016
  • 21 Sun Sentinel July 8, 2016
  • 22 Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry June 6, 2016
  • 23 Cleveland.com November 7, 2017
  • 25 Sustainable Pulse July 4, 2016
  • 27 The Register Citizen November 17, 2017
  • 28 The Christian Science Monitor December 27, 2015