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Water Today Title October 30, 2020

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Blue-green algae



This story is brought to you in part by Biomass Recycle

By Michelle Moore

Three dogs have died shortly after taking a swim in the Saint John River in New Brunswick. The deaths occurred around the weekend of July 21-22 and are suspected to have been caused by an exposure to toxic blue green algae.

Blue green algae, otherwise known as cyanobacteria appears as green slime on the surface of water and can be toxic. Animals can sometimes swim in or ingest the algae unknowingly and can become sick or die.

Two of the dogs were swimming in the water in Carleton Park near Fredericton. Both dogs died roughly 30 minutes after contact with the water seemingly caused them to go into convulsions.

Jeff Wilhelm posted about his dogs on Facebook on July 22 saying "Sookie and Peekaboo must've been poisoned at the beach by Carleton Park, just down the street from our house. Sookie died in my arms within minutes, and Peekaboo died about an hour later."

Wilhelm said they rushed the dogs to the local veterinarian but there was nothing to be done. They are awaiting the results of the autopsies.

Ten kilometres away at Hartt Island, Shawn and Stacy McFadden were with their 8 month old dog Nike on the Saint John River when she got sick after a swim on July 20.

McFadden also shared what happened on Facebook, "after a short swim in the river Nike must have eaten something in the water and quickly went into what looked like shock, convulsions, and lost control of bodily functions...we quickly rushed her to the animal hospital but they were not able to save her."

On July 25 a statement by the City of Fredericton said they had been made aware of the situation and had reached out to provincial authorities for direction. It added, "in the meantime, the city is advising the public to use caution with their pets around the river."

While tests have not yet confirmed the deaths were caused by toxic blue green algae, the government of New Brunswick released a statement Monday morning reminding people to be careful during the swimming season.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, Chief Medical Officer of Health said "if a blue-green algae bloom is suspected, do not swim, water-ski or engage in any other recreational activity that may involve contact with water in areas where a bloom is observed."

Dr. Russell recommended showering after swimming, not swallowing any water, and being vigilant when it comes to pets and children. The statement also advises that boiling water is not an effective way of rendering the water potable as boiling it will not kill the cyanobacteria.

There are a number of toxins produced by blue green algae including neurotoxins, hepatotoxins, cytotoxins and endotoxins. The degree of harm can vary depending on the level and type of exposure to the toxin.

Exposure through the skin for instance, will be significantly less harmful than ingesting the water which is why pets and livestock tend to get poisoned by the toxin more often than humans do.

The investigation into these cases is ongoing and will be analyzed by New Brunswick's provincial veterinarian, Dr. James Goltz.

Dr. Goltz told this reporter, "for now we really don't know the cause of death in three dogs that had swam in the Saint John River shortly before dying. We just know that they swam in the water or were close to the waters edge prior to dying, and they had been perfectly healthy before that..."

Dr. Goltz said the preliminary investigation did not provide any clues. But the quick onset of the symptoms did rule out infectious agents and pointed to toxicity. He said that with the time of year and the warm temperatures, blue green algae had to be considered as a possibility.

He said "after the incidents the Department of Environment and Department of Health sent inspectors out to the sites ... and did not detect any blooms at either site, but they did collect samples at both sites and we forwarded those samples as well. They'll be analyzed, we have water samples and algae samples."

Dr. Goltz said he had seen a similar case in 2010 with a five and a half month old puppy that died within half an hour of contact with the water. In this case the cause of death turned out to be a cyanobacterial toxin called anatoxin A, a neurotoxin.

The samples have been sent to the National Research Council facility in Halifax which tests for biotoxins including cyanotoxins. They are expediting the results which are expected by the end of this week.

When asked why a swim advisory had not been issued, Dr. Goltz said "the reason we haven't issued any kind of swim advisory is we really don't know why the dogs died yet. So a possibility in my mind, a strong possibility is we have to consider blue green algae or cyanobacteria as one of the most likely causes at this site."

He added, "you don't usually issue an advisory until you have more proof of something. So people went out to the site, they didn't see any evidence of an algal bloom..."

Nevertheless, Dr. Goltz did warn against people letting their pets swim at the sites at the Saint John River where the incidents occurred.

In terms of blue green algae in general, he said "for sure if you are out with your pets or children and you are near a body of water and you see a green scum on the water do not let your pets or children go into that water."

Dr. Goltz said that usually algae blooms occur in lakes which means that in the bloom typically affects a relatively small area and an advisory can be posted at the lake that's affected.

He said "if it does turn out to be this and its in a river oh gosh, there could be a lot of different places where the bacteria could grow."


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