Testing has confirmed the presence of blue-green algae at a Nova Scotia lake that is tied to the deaths of two dogs and sent a woman to hospital.
The province had tested samples from Shubenacadie-Grand Lake and Fish Lake — near Elmsdale, N.S. — after cautioning the public not to consume the water or use the lake recreationally.
The Department of Environment and Climate Change is issuing a blue-green algae advisory for the lake, which will continue through the summer. The advisory means people should not drink or cook with the water, and that it is “safest not to swim or boat in the lake.”
The department notes the levels detected in the lake are “consistent with levels that are dangerous to dogs.”
An emergency alert was sent out in the early morning hours of June 9 to warn of the danger. A veterinarian with the Elmsdale Animal Hospital has since told The Canadian Press one of the two golden retrievers was dead and the other was suffering from seizures and diarrhea when they arrived at the clinic north of Halifax. That second dog died later.
“Some of the lab works, for example, there were no detectable issues from the things we looked for, such as petroleum products or pesticide-related products, so that’s good,” said the department’s deputy minister, Julie Towers.
“We have had additional sampling that has reinforced the presence of blue-green algae. So that puts us in a position where we certainly have more information about what people could or could not have been exposed to, which we did not know last Thursday.“
People who swim in water contaminated by blue-green algae can experience itchy and irritated skin and eyes, hay fever-like allergy symptoms, hives, rashes and blisters. Those who drink it can get headaches, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, muscle and joint pain, and liver damage.
Towers says all algae species are naturally occurring, and it’s most likely that the blue-green algae in this lake has always been there.
“It’s when they get in concentrations that they can become more of an issue,” she explained.
At this point, she says, it must just be assumed that there’s blue-green algae present in the water and precautions will have to be taken.
Warm weather, like the temperatures experienced when the incident at Shubenacadie-Grand Lake took place, exacerbates the problem.
“Under blue-green algae advisories, people are encouraged to proceed with caution. They should not be taking their drinking water from there and if they do choose various recreational uses — swimming, boating — they should be very careful about their contact with the water,” she said.
“Think of it as a risk. And so everyone’s going to have to make their choices about what level of risk they’re comfortable with. But we certainly encourage people not to take their drinking water from any surface water supply, including Grand Lake. We’re not prohibiting them, but we’re expressing caution,”
‘Risk is always going to be there’
Elizabeth Kennedy, the director of the water branch for the department, says the province is seeing more reports of blue-green algae.
“And we can’t ever be sure that the algae is gone,” she said.
“Once it’s in a lake, it’s there. It’s blooming. So that risk is always going to be there.”
And with climate change, it’s expected the problem will only increase.
“Unfortunately, the blooms can move with the wind. They can move with waves. They can dissolve and kind of disappear, and then they can reform and concentrate again,” she said.
Although they are difficult to identify, she advises anyone who thinks they’ve seen the blooms to contact the province.
Municipality to continue providing bottled water
The municipality has decided to continue providing bottled water to residents who draw from the lake until the blue-green advisory ends.
Residents will receive two litres of water per person per day. As well, one litre will be available for pets. Residents may collect up to two days’ worth of water at one time.
If residents bring their own sanitized containers, they are able to fill up additional water.
The water can be picked up on weekdays between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. and on weekends between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. during the advisory at:
- Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Station 42, 4132 #2 Highway, Wellington
- Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Station 43, 22 Lakeside Drive, Grand Lake
Both Halifax Water and the Municipality of East Hants have stressed that municipal water continues to be safe to drink, and only those who have water feeds directly from the lake are at risk.
It’s not clear how many people are affected by the water advisory, but the municipality has said it’s likely to be in the hundreds.
— With a file from Alex Cooke