Blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, occur naturally at low levels in water bodies. While they are not generally a cause for concern, this changes when, due to warmth (increased temperatures from climate change), light or nutrients (from agricultural or municipal releases), they “bloom” in aquatic ecosystems, producing and releasing cyanotoxins. These toxins, when ingested by humans or animals, can cause illness and even death. Even skin contact, from showering or swimming, can be toxic. Such outbreaks, in addition to posing a threat to humans, livestock, fish and wildlife, are extremely costly (estimated at US$825 million in the United States and US$330 million in Australia).
In Canada, a growing number of drinking water treatment facilities, including those fed by the Great Lakes, the source of water for 8.5 million Canadians, are now considered at risk. They need to install costly treatment barriers to remove cyanobacteria and their toxins. Drs. Sébastien Sauvé and Jesse Shapiro of the Université de Montréal, along with Sarah Dorner of Polytechnique Montréal, are leading a team in developing a chemical-genomic diagnostic toolkit to assess the risk of toxicity in water sources and to guide municipalities and water quality authorities in prevention and treatment strategies. The team will also focus on the best treatment practices to prevent toxin breakthrough in drinking water and ensure safe disposal of toxic sludge. The team will consult with communities to propose longer-term, cost-effective preventive strategies that will protect water bodies as an essential resource for drinking water and habitat.
The GE3LS research project will include an analysis of:
- the relative costs and effectiveness of various bloom/toxicity diagnostic and treatment options;
- methods of increasing stakeholders awareness; and
- the implementation of a cost-sharing option, based on a socioecological framework, for a permanent change in agri-environmental practices.