Another reason why we don’t love that dirty water?

With the Red Sox in the playoffs yet again, I know I am not alone in the hope that we’ll be hearing a lot of the Standell’s 1966 tribute to Boston and the Charles River–“Dirty Water”–throughout the month of October as the Sox go for their third World Series trophy of the young century.

As much fun as it is to sing this song in the afterglow of a Sox victory, it’s sad that the label “dirty water” still fits the Charles River and so many other dirty waters across New England more than 40 years after the song came out and more than thirty-five years after the passage of the Clean Water Act.  One of the biggest problems now–blue-green algae blooms or scums (like the one on the Charles pictured below).  Beyond just making waters look and smell disgusting, swimming in water during or shortly after one of these blooms can cause skin rashes and ingesting water tainted with some blue-greens can cause unpleasant gastrointestinal problems.

Of all the reasons why we don’t really love that dirty water, scientists working on a cutting edge new theory may have identified a scary new one: a potential link between ingestion of toxins produced by blue-green algae and debilitating brain diseases like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

charles-algaeAn article in the Spring 2009 UNH magazine details the work of two New England scientists whose research is exploring the connection between clusters of ALS sufferers–i.e., areas where the incidence of disease is abnormally higher than in the general populations–and lakes where blue-green algae blooms have been or are still a problem.  While scientists have discovered some startling links–discussed further in the article–more study is certainly needed.  Raising awareness is an important first step.

In the meantime, CLF is continuing to advocate for solutions to the water pollution problems that causes blue-green algae blooms.  Simply put, the cause is too much of an otherwise good thing: nutrients.  Phosphorus and nitrogen are nutrients that exist in abundant quantities on this planet.  Under normal circumstances, most water bodies contain just enough of these nutrients to promote healthy growth of plant and animal life.  But improperly-treated pollution discharges have the effect of concentrating and overloading these waters, creating conditions in which the toxin-producing blue-green algae thrive.  These pollution sources include:

  • poorly-controlled discharges of runoff from paved surfaces like big-box store parking lots, construction sites, rooftops, and city streets
  • discharges from sewage treatment plants
  • runoff from farm fields overloaded with manure

In addition to our efforts to clean up the Charles River, CLF’s Clean Water program is a driving force for cleanup of nutrient-overloaded bays and estuaries on Cape Cod, New Hampshire’s Great Bay, Vermont’s Lake Champlain,  and is supporting Maine’s efforts to adopt stringent standards to control nutrient pollution discharges to coastal and inland waters in that state.  Your continued support of CLF’s work is helping to restore these water bodies to health. And, if the scientific research establishes a firm link between brain diseases and blue-green algae blooms, your support of CLF’s work may also help protect the health of present and future generations at risk of exposure to the brain-debilitating toxins that certain blue-greens blooms produce.

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