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There’s A Lot We Don’t Know About Algal Blooms

Anyone who pays attention to the research focused on Chautauqua Lake knows there’s a lot we don’t know about harmful algal blooms.

Research right now is focused largely on explaining why algal blooms occur, the conditions that create them and ways to deal with them when they happen. That’s important research, especially for areas that rely on their lakes as vital parts of their economy – like southern Chautauqua County.

We know harmful algal blooms can affect people’s health. The state Health Department has said exposure to high levels of blue-green algae and their toxins can cause diarrhea, nausea or vomiting; skin, eye or throat irritation; and allergic reactions or breathing difficulties.

Are there more health side effects we don’t know about? No one knows for sure, though a recent story by Margot Russell makes us wonder what else we don’t know about harmful algal blooms. The Lakewood area has seen higher-than-usual incidents of ALS that were termed “worrisome” by one researcher. There are four known cases presently in southern Chautauqua County, and seven deaths reported from 2019 to 2024. The incidence may be higher, but New York state lacks a mandatory reporting system, and past and current cases in the county are gleaned from obituaries and from patients who are public about their diagnosis.

From 2013 to 2018, another six deaths were caused by ALS in Chautauqua County, a disease whose incidence rate is calculated at 1.5 to 2 cases per 100,000 people per year. In Lakewood alone, a village of 3,000, five people reportedly had ALS in the summer of 2023, verified by obituaries and private knowledge of the cases.

It is far too early to draw any conclusions. Researchers like Dr. Elija Stommel, a professor of neurology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine and a neurologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, has been researching ALS for more than two decades, mapping out high occurrences of the disease that are found clustered around lakes with harmful algae blooms. While there isn’t yet a direct link between algal blooms and ALS, researchers have found that living within 18 miles of a lake with high levels of dissolved nitrogen raised the odds of belonging to an ALS hot spot by 167%.

It will be years, perhaps decades, before there is enough data to establish a link between algal blooms and ALS. But the fact such research is being conducted make one wonder what else we don’t know about the way harmful algal blooms affect the human body. Those questions, in return, make the algal bloom research being done on Chautauqua Lake even more important. The more we know about algal blooms, the more we can do to protect public health.

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