You have probably heard that the swim portion of this weekend's Ironman competition has been cancelled due to harmful algae blooms in the water. But do you know how these blooms develop?

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How do harmful algal blooms (HABs) even occur?

Colonies of algae—simple plants that live in the sea and freshwater—grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds.

While we know of many factors that may contribute to HABs, how these factors come together to create a 'bloom' of algae is not well understood. Studies indicate that many algal species flourish when wind and water currents are favorable.

In other cases, HABs may be linked to 'overfeeding.' This occurs when nutrients (mainly phosphorus, nitrogen, and carbon) from sources such as lawns and farmlands flow downriver to the sea and build up at a rate that 'overfeeds' the algae that exist normally in the environment.

Some HABs have also been reported in the aftermath of natural phenomena like sluggish water circulation, unusually high water temperatures, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and drought. Typically the Ohio River moves too fast and are muddy enough to keep the algae from proliferating. The water temperature today is 74 degrees and we have dipped into drought over the last few months. 

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How can you protect yourself, your family, and your pets from exposure to HABs?

-People often get sick by eating shellfish containing toxins produced by these algae. Airborne HAB toxins may also cause breathing problems and, in some cases, trigger asthma attacks in susceptible individuals.

-Don't swim, water ski, or boat in areas where the water is discolored or where you see foam, scum, or mats of algae on the water.

-If you do swim in water that might have a HAB, rinse off with fresh water as soon as possible.

-Don't let pets or livestock swim in or drink from areas where the water is discolored or where you can see foam, scum, or mats of algae in the water.

-If pets (especially dogs) swim in scummy water, rinse them off immediately - do not let them lick the algae (and toxins) off their fur.

-Don't irrigate lawns or golf courses with pond water that looks scummy or smells bad.

-Report any musty smell or taste in your drinking water to your local water utility.

-Respect any water body closures announced by local public health authorities.

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What to do if you or your pet have been exposed?

Get medical treatment right away if you think you, your pet, or your livestock might have been poisoned by cyanobacterial toxins. Remove people from exposure and give them supportive treatment.

HABs can also be costly in economic terms as well. At present, HABs cause about $82 million in economic losses to the seafood, restaurant, and tourism industries each year. HABs reduce tourism, close beaches and shellfish beds, and decrease the catch from both recreational and commercial fisheries.

If you are planning on going to the running or biking portions of the Ironman race tomorrow, it will be frosty in the morning with plenty of sun and milder temperatures in the afternoon near 70 degrees. 

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