Early Reports of Harmful Blue-Green Algae in Kansas Waterways Raise Health Concerns, Warns Kansas State University Specialist

By Trish Svoboda

Reports of harmful blue-green algae in Kansas waterways have been coming in unusually early this year, possibly due to warmer late-spring weather and increased rainfall, according to Kansas State University fisheries and aquatics specialist Joe Gerken. Blue-green algae, which are actually a type of bacteria called cyanobacteria, thrive in warm, nutrient-rich water and can form harmful algal blooms (HAB) under the right conditions. Some varieties of blue-green algae produce toxins that can cause illness in humans and animals.

Gerken noted that the HAB season seems to be starting earlier each year. Blooms typically occur when water temperatures exceed 75 degrees Fahrenheit, although some species thrive in cooler conditions. Blue-green algal blooms in water often resemble spilled green paint or pea soup. They can cover large areas or just a small portion of a waterway, sometimes with little visible algae. When the cells break down, they can emit a swampy odor.

Humans and animals can become ill from harmful algal blooms through contact with contaminated water or by inhaling airborne droplets. Symptoms of HAB illness include vomiting, diarrhea, rash, eye irritation, cough, sore throat, and headache, and can appear within hours to two days after exposure.

In addition, HAB-contaminated water can cause aquatic life to die. Landowners are encouraged to maintain their ponds and waterways. Gerken mentioned that the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks has a publication offering guidance on managing fish and wildlife in Kansas ponds.

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