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Current Advisories/Warnings

KDHE Alerts

Cyanobacterial (Blue-Green Algal) Blooms:
  Tastes, Odors, and Toxins

USGS Kansas Algal Toxin Research Team Contact Information:

Jennifer Graham
Keith Loftin
Guy Foster

New Presentation:

Presentation first slide  2014 Water Mission Area Research Lecture Series Presentation

Gaging Station
Cyanobacteria may produce taste-and-odor compounds that cause malodorous or unpalatable drinking water. Cheney Reservoir, Kansas.  June 2003. Photo Courtesy of KDHE.

Freshwater and marine harmful algal blooms (HABs) can occur anytime water use is impaired due to excessive accumulations of algae. In freshwater, the majority of HABs are caused by cyanobacteria (also called blue-green algae). Cyanobacteria cause a multitude of water-quality concerns, including the potential to produce taste-and-odor causing compounds and toxins that are potent enough to poison animals and humans. Taste-and-odor compounds and toxins are of particular concern in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers that are used for either drinking water supplies or full body contact recreation. Taste-and-odor compounds cause malodorous or unpalatable drinking water and fish, resulting in increased treatment costs and loss of aquacultural and recreational revenue.  Cyanobacterial toxins (cyanotoxins) have been implicated in human and animal illness and death in over fifty countries worldwide, including at least 35 U.S. States.  Human toxicoses associated with cyanotoxins have most commonly occurred after exposure through drinking water or recreational activities.

Gaging Station"Taste-and-odor producing cyanobacteria Cyanobacteria may also produce toxins that are potent enough to poison humans and animals such as cattle and dogs. Mozingo Lake, Missouri.  October 2001. Photo by J. L. Graham.

The cyanobacterial compounds most commonly associated with taste-and-odor episodes are geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol (MIB).  Cyanobacteria also produce a chemically and bioactively diverse group of toxins, all targeting fundamental cellular processes and thereby affecting a wide range of organisms.  Cyanotoxins implicated in human illness include microcystin, cylindrospermopsin, anatoxin, saxitoxin, and β-methylamino alanine (BMAA) Kansas Department of Health and Environment.  Because of potential human health risks, cyanotoxins are currently on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking water contaminant candidate list (CCL).

Cyanobacteria Binder Lake, Iowa
Cyanobacteria may form thick accumulations in near-shore areas. Binder Lake, Iowa. August 2006. Photo by J. L. Graham

Although anecdotal reports are common, few studies have documented the distribution, occurrence, and concentration of taste-and-odor compounds and toxins in cyanobacterial blooms throughout the United States. In addition, while the general factors influencing cyanobacterial bloom formation are well known the specific factors driving particular occurrences of taste-and-odor compounds and toxins remain unclear. Taste-and-odor compounds and cyanotoxins represent both economic and public-health concerns and resource managers, drinking water treatment plant operators, lake associations, and local officials are increasingly faced with decisions about cyanobacteria that affect public awareness, exposure, and health. Understanding the environmental factors associated with the occurrence and concentration of taste-and-odor compounds and cyanotoxins is key to lake management and drinking water treatment decisions and minimization of human health risks.

Current Study Areas

Gaging Station"Taste-and-odor producing cyanobacteria bloom in Cheney Reservoir, south-central Kansas. Cheney Reservoir, Kansas.  June 2003. Photo Courtesy of KDHE.

Cheney Reservoir

Severe taste-and-odor episodes in Cheney Reservoir, a key drinking water supply for the city of Wichita, Kansas, during the early 1990’s prompted water-quality studies to identify and mitigate potential causes.  Recent USGS studies have focused on real-time estimation of water-quality constituent concentrations and transport from the watershed and the description of in-reservoir conditions that may result in cyanobacterial production of taste-and-odor compounds.  The taste-and-odor compound geosmin, probably produced by the cyanobacterial genera Anabaena, is the likely cause of taste-and-odor episodes in Cheney Reservoir.  Continuously monitored variables, such as light, temperature, conductivity, and turbidity have been used to successfully predict when geosmin concentrations will exceed the human detection limit of 10 nanograms per liter (view real-time estimates of geosmin concentrations in Cheney Reservoir). Ongoing studies at Cheney Reservoir will link biological, physicochemical, hydrological, and meteorological processes to refine relations to estimate taste-and-odor occurrences and develop new relations with other variables of concern, such as cyanotoxins.  The city of Wichita plans to use these models, along with other variables measured in real time, to aid the management of the resource and decrease water-treatment costs.

Kansas River

Kansas Rivers

Cyanobacteria (also called blue-green algae) may produce toxins and taste-and-odor compounds that cause substantial economic and public health concerns, and are of particular interest in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers that are used for drinking-water supply. The Kansas River is a primary source of drinking water for about 800,000 people in northeastern Kansas. The sources, frequency of occurrence, and causes of cyanobacteria and associated toxins and taste-and-odor compounds in the Kansas River have not been fully characterized. The development of an advance notification system of changing water-quality conditions and cyanotoxin and taste-and-odor occurrences will allow drinking-water treatment facilities time to develop and implement adequate treatment strategies.

Read more at the Kansas River Algal page.

The USGS Organic Geochemistry Research Laboratory (OGRL)

The OGRL has a USGS approved GC/MS method for the analysis of the taste-and-odor compounds geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol (MIB).  In addition, the lab currently analyzes for the cyanotoxin microcystin using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA).  Methods are being developed for the LC/MS/MS analysis of cyanotoxins including microcystins, anatoxin, cylindrospermopsin, and β -methylamino alanine (BMAA).

Additional Resources

Additional Information


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Page Last Modified: 2017-04-25 10:54:52 CDT