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Health Officials Struggle to Confront Toxic Algae Blooms

Eve Zuckoff
Ecologist Kevin Johnson collects water samples in Santuit Pond in Mashpee on Oct. 5. "This kind of putrid green scum we're looking at is distinct for cyanobacteria," he said.

Part Two of a three-part series

On a rainy Monday morning in Mashpee, ecologist Kevin Johnson balances on one foot while trying to pull on a pair of waders.

“I'll wade out … around knee- to waist-deep and take my sample there,” he said.

Johnson is with the Association to Preserve Cape Cod (APCC), a nonprofit environmental organization that monitors water quality in ponds across the Cape.

On this particular day, he’s collecting three water samples from Santuit Pond, making note of water temperature, clarity, and most important, color.

“So this kind of putrid green scum we're looking at is distinct for cyanobacteria. This is the kind of stuff that if a dog ingests or any kind of human ingests, it can be very harmful,” he said. “It's a huge problem.” 

What Happens When a Town Regularly Monitors for Cyanobacteria Blooms?

This year, only about 50 of the Cape’s approximately 1,000 ponds were monitored on a regular basis, and of those monitored, about a third were considered toxic enough to warrant some level of use restriction. With that in mind, experts say the number of ponds monitored should be at least seven times higher to keep the public safe.

One of the challenges to getting there, according to health agents, is how to pay for a more robust program.

“I think Wellfleet is unique in this where we're actually paying money to sample,” said Hillary Greenberg-Lemos, a health agent in the town of Wellfleet. “There are towns that are not sampling.” 

Like health agents in a handful of other Cape towns, she works with APCC. The nonprofit’s ecologists -- people like Kevin Johnson -- collect dozens of water samples to monitor the presence and density of cyanobacteria approximately every two weeks.

Map: Association to Preserve Cape Cod 
“If APCC tells us the numbers were high enough to be concerned then we would shut the pond down out of caution,” Greenberg-Lemos said. “I would rather be overcautious than under-cautious and have folks get sick.”

Shutting down a pond to swimming -- for humans or pets -- isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. Just notifying people can be difficult. Most ponds have multiple entrances, including private entrances. That means the people who use the ponds most might never see a warning sign.

What Happens When a Town Doesn’t Regularly Monitor for Cyanobacteria Blooms?  

The majority of towns on the Cape and Islands don’t regularly monitor for blooms, so people might be in jeopardy before anyone’s aware there’s a problem.

“If you're not paying money to sample, then you wait for a complaint to come in, essentially,” Greenberg-Lemos said. 

Of course, a complaint requires an informed public, but Cape visitors might not recognize unhealthy scum or know whom to call.

Also, some blooms are most toxic right after the green color has dissipated, which means there’s no visual cue and water sampling is the only way to know if a pond is unsafe.


If a complaint does come in, towns that don’t pay for their own water testing can turn to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). 

A spokesperson for the agency said in an email it costs the state about $100 for each test, plus anywhere from $250 to $500 more per sample, depending on where the waterbody is located and how many other samples are collected that day. In the current fiscal year, only $21,000 has been allotted to monitor cyanobacteria across the entire state.

“That's not a lot of statewide samples,” said Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of APCC.


In the time between when a complaint comes in, and when the water sample has been tested, Gottlieb said, it can take up to 12 days to notify the public, though a DPH spokesperson said the results of the private laboratory testing are generally reported by the next business day.

“The problem with the long delay is that during that waiting period, if you in fact have a problem,” Gottlieb warned, “people have been exposed to that problem.”  

Those exposed to toxic cyanobacteria blooms can experience health problems ranging from skin irritation, to fevers, to major organ damage.

DPH doesn’t require that towns test for cyanobacteria blooms, but the spokesperson said the agency issues guidelines and recommendations to support local health agents.

Neglect is ‘Unconscionable:’ Experts Call For Wider Testing

It’s only in the last few years that the toxic pond problem has become obvious. Fifteen years ago, required monitoring probably wasn’t necessary, but now, Gottlieb said, it should be. 

“I think that ignorance is transitioning to a neglect that is largely unconscionable,” he said. “You know, we know what the problem is. We know how to solve some of these problems. And it's still a fight.” 


NEXT: Part Three: What it will take to prevent a health and environmental crisis?

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.