What’s in the water: Charlotte boater, entrepreneur takes lead on testing for cyanobacteria

Courtesy photo
Mike Dunbar of Charlotte will be the first U.S. distributor of the BlueGreen Test  a home cyanobacteria test kit produced by Sternaco, a water-quality testing company in Finland. Though now used to test recreational water, the BlueGreen Test was developed to ensure that drinking water was safe for cattle, according to Dunbar.

JULIA BAILEY-WELLS
Community News Service

Mike Dunbar has been boating on Lake Champlain since 1997, and lately, he’s decided to take steps on his own to be sure that the water is safe.

The Charlotte resident and entrepreneur is in the process of becoming the first U.S. distributor of the BlueGreen Test, a home cyanobacteria test kit produced by Sternaco, a water-quality testing company in Finland. Though now used to test recreational water, the BlueGreen Test was developed to ensure that drinking water was safe for cattle, according to Dunbar. 

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are a naturally occurring freshwater bacteria that grow rapidly in warm water conditions high in phosphorus and nitrogen. Cyanobacteria can form blooms – dense concentrated populations – that may release cyanotoxins which can pose serious health risks to humans, including severe stomach problems, liver damage and limb numbness, according to the Vermont Department of Health. 

Not all blooms contain cyanotoxins, but even those that don’t may still cause skin irritation or allergy-like symptoms. Exposure to cyanobacteria also can be dangerous or fatal to pets and livestock.

This summer has seen multiple beach closures up and down Lake Champlain and at other lakes in Vermont where algae blooms have posed health risks on some of the warmest days. Burlington, South Burlington and St. Albans have had to turn swimmers away; Lake Carmi State Park in Franklin has been a hot spot for the several years as well.

For Dunbar, who gets in his boat and motors about on the open lake, having a test kit in hand is an extra precaution.

The BlueGreen Test says it quickly identifies the presence of cyanotoxins in a water sample.

“It’s like a pregnancy test – there’s a yes or no, it takes 15 minutes and it tells you if the toxins are there or not,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar began searching for a home chemical cyanotoxin test after fellow lakeside neighbor David Scheuer died from ALS in 2015. 

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Also called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famous baseball player who had it, ALS has no cure and those diagnosed with it often live just a few years. 

Dunbar said that Scheuer’s doctor,  Dartmouth neurologist, Elijah W. Stommel, suggested that the man’s ALS might be due to exposure to cyanobacteria. 

Bridget O’Brien, a toxicological analyst with the Vermont Department of Health said  that “cyanobacteria is not a known risk at this time for neurodegenerative diseases, but [the health department] certainly encourages more research into that, as ALS is a debilitating disease.”

Given even cyanobacteria’s known health risks, the state and local municipalities have kept a close eye on the shorelines this summer. 

Local officials said they visually monitor their public beaches for cyanobacteria. They do not perform any routine tests for cyanotoxins but instead rely on visual observations. Evidence of a bloom would prompt a beach closure. 

“Our recommendation is to keep the beach closed for the duration of the bloom, and do toxin testing after the bloom has cleared,” said O’Brien, “and then once it’s confirmed that there aren’t elevated levels in the water to then re-open.”

State government also collaborates with the Lake Champlain Committee, a nonprofit, science-based advocacy group, to train an army of volunteers to identify cyanobacteria blooms. These “cyanobacteria monitors” learn to visually spot cyanobacteria and report on water conditions in their area. The health department then uses this data to maintain a map of known cyanobacteria blooms in the state, which anyone can check to stay updated on local water quality. The map is online at healthvermont.gov/tracking/cyanobacteria-tracker.

So far this summer, Shelburne’s town beach has not closed due to cyanobacteria, according to Shelburne Recreation Director Betsy Cieplecki. The water is tested once a week for e-coli bacteria as recommended by the state health department, according to the town website.

The state tracking map listed the Shelburne Pond boat launch as a “low alert” for algae as recently as Aug. 8. The site says that means that “small amounts of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) were observed: and that the area is “open for recreation, but caution is advised in any location where dense accumulations or scums are apparent.”

South Burlington closed Red Rocks beach for a suspected cyanobacteria bloom briefly in July, said Recreation Director Holly Rees.

Charlotte Recreation Director Nicole Conley said she and lifeguards check water at the town beach multiple times a week and so far, there have not been issues with algae this summer. They do regular testing for e-coli as well without incident.

“We’re on the broad lake,” she said, pointing out that water tends to circulate with the help of westerly winds.  

State officials also welcome observations from the public. Anyone can email bloomalert@vermont.org with photos and the location of a suspected bloom. If  health department staff deem the bloom legitimate, the state informs local officials and recommend beach closure, according to O’Brien. 

But even with the heightened vigilance this summer in watching out for signs of cyanobacteria and local officials’ responses to close beaches, Dunbar said he feels that doing his own test for cyanotoxins can’t hurt.

“I live by the lake. I’m on the boat a lot – I want to know if [cyanotoxins] are there,” he said. 

Although the BlueGreen Test itself works quickly, getting it from Finland has taken time.

“I wanted to try the test and it took months to get it through customs,” Dunbar said.  

Although it’s getting late in the season, Dunbar said he should have a website set up soon offering the tests that come three to a box for $60 plus tax and shipping.

Some research on the state health department found test kits for sale to the public as well. Dunbar said he is aware of the state tests but pointed out that the tester needs to send the sample in with results coming days later. 

The state offers two cyanotoxin test kits to test drinking water or swimming water. The kits test for microcystin and anatoxin-a, two classes of cyanotoxins, and cost $25 and $75 respectively. They can be found online at healthvermont.gov/health-environment/recreational-water/cyanobacteria-blue-green-algae. 

As for the BlueGreen Test, Dunbar said he would welcome the state’s input on the soundness of the toxin tester.

“I’d like to work with the state of Vermont to see if they can verify its accuracy,” he said. 

Until his website is up, Dunbar said anyone interested in the BlueGreen test can email bluegreentestvt@gmail.com.

Next week: Blue-green algae and ALS – connection or coincidence?

Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

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