We usually think of algal blooms as a waterborne nuisance. Some of these slimy-looking mats, formed when microscopic plant-like organisms and bacteria grow out of control, secrete toxic chemicals that cause liver damage, vomiting, or neurological problems. They can pose a serious threat to public health; in 2014, a bloom contaminated the water supply in Toledo, Ohio and left residents without safe drinking water for days.
It turns out danger may lurk in the air as well. When waves out on the Great Lakes churn up water during a bloom, they could be sending pieces of algae and their toxins flying, scientists recently reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. These particles can float off on the wind for miles. That means people living near the lake might be breathing in algal toxins without realizing it. And this isn't just a problem for folks living on the water.
“It shouldn’t be thought of as something that’s just going to happen right next to the coast,” says coauthor Andrew Ault, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences and chemistry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Especially when you have high winds, things could get carried pretty far inland.”