Cyanobacteria (Blue-Green Algae)

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are naturally found in fresh water in the U.S. and in Lake Champlain and other Vermont waters. Some types of cyanobacteria can release natural toxins or poisons (called cyanotoxins) into the water, especially when they die and break down.

What are cyanobacteria blooms and what do they look like?
Cyanobacteria grow well in water that has high amounts of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. Cyanobacteria can multiply quickly to form surface scums and dense populations known as blooms, especially during the warm days of late summer and early fall. In recent years, cyanobacteria blooms have occurred most often in northern sections of Lake Champlain—such as St. Albans Bay and Mississquoi Bay.
 
Cyanobacteria can make the water appear dark green, and look like pea soup or spilled paint. Blooms can also appear as white, brown, red or purple.

It's important to know what cyanobacteria look like and to use your best judgment when thinking about swimming or doing other activities in the water. Watch the video below to find out, and see more photos of what cyanobacteria look like and what are not cyanobacteria.

How do I report a cyanobacteria bloom?

Email BloomAlert@vermont.gov with photos of the suspected bloom. If possible, include a detailed description of the bloom's location, or mark the bloom location using an image from an online mapping application such as Google, Bing or Yahoo Maps.

How do I find out about cyanobacteria conditions near me?

Check weekly lake conditions

The Cyanobacteria Tracker Map allows the public to check the recent cyanobacteria reports at shoreline sites and recreational swimming areas of Lake Champlain and various inland lakes in Vermont. At many sites, observations are made weekly from early June to early October. Sites are identified as "Generally Safe" or indicated as having cyanobacteria presence with "Low Alert" or "High Alert." 

VT Tracking logo
Check the Cyanobacteria Tracker Map

What are the signs of cyanobacteria sickness?

The health effects from cyanobacteria depend on the amount someone is exposed to, how they are exposed, whether toxins are being produced, and the type of toxin.

People may get rashes or other skin irritations from coming into contact with blooms. Usually these skin irritations are not associated with toxins, but from other compounds in cyanobacteria cells.

Breathing in water droplets with cyanobacteria or toxins may cause allergic-like reactions, runny noses or sore throats.

Swallowing water with high levels of cyanobacteria toxins may cause:

  • Severe stomach problems like abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting
  • Liver damage, which may take hours or days to show up in people or animals
  • Numb lips, tingling fingers and toes, or dizziness

Anyone who has health concerns should talk with their health care provider.

What should I do if I think I see cyanobacteria?
  • Stay away from water containing cyanobacteria.
  • Keep pets out of the water.
  • Tell the lifeguard or manager on duty, if you are at a monitored beach.
  • Report the bloom to the Health Department by emailing BloomAlert@vermont.gov. Include several pictures as well as an image of a map noting the location of the bloom. (Taking pictures of water is difficult with glare and reflections. Take more pictures than you think you need!)
What should I do if I come in direct contact with cyanobacteria?
  • Rinse off with clean water immediately.
  • Talk to your health care provider if you have symptoms such as skin, eye, or throat irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, allergic reactions or breathing difficulties.
  • Report symptoms that may be related to cyanobacteria to the Health Department by calling 1-800-439-8550.
Could there be cyanobacteria or cyanotoxins in my drinking water?

Cyanobacteria are not usually found in groundwater. If you have reason to believe that surface water is getting into your private groundwater well, you may wish to talk with a water treatment specialist or test your water for contaminants, including bacteria and nitrates.

We recommend not swallowing untreated lake or pond water in any way—including drinking, teeth brushing or food preparation. Untreated water may contain cyanobacteria or cyanotoxins, as well as other microorganisms and chemicals that can make you sick. We do not recommend showering or bathing in water that may contain cyanobacteria, because contact with cyanobacteria can cause rashes and skin irritation.

If your private drinking water comes from surface water, work with a water treatment specialist to make sure that your system can treat for cyanotoxins and other pathogens. Once treated, you may wish to re-test your water for toxins to make sure the treatment system is working. You can order toxin test kits through the Health Department’s laboratory. See the next question for details.

The Health Department works with the Department of Environmental Conservation and drinking water suppliers on Lake Champlain to test drinking water for cyanotoxins from July through September. See the test results  

How do I test my water for cyanotoxins?

Cyanotoxin test kits can be ordered from the Health Department Laboratory by calling 802-338-4736 or 800-660-9997 (toll-free in Vermont).

If you would like to test your private drinking water for cyanotoxins, you can test for microcystin by ordering Kit BGA-2A for $25 or test for anatoxin-a by ordering Kit ANA-1 for $75.

If you would like to test your private swim area for cyanotoxins, you can test for microcystin by ordering Kit BGA-3 for $25 dollars or test for anatoxin-a by ordering Kit ANA-1 for $75.

How are cyanobacteria monitored in Vermont?

The Health Department is one of many partners working to monitor cyanobacteria in Vermont:

Most of the time, cyanobacteria conditions are assessed visually. This means that staff or volunteers go out to a site, look at the water conditions, and report on whether they see cyanobacteria or not. This information is then displayed on the Cyanobacteria Tracker.

At select sites, water samples are also taken along with the visual observation. These water samples are then tested for cyanotoxins and analyzed to see which cyanobacteria are present and in what densities. In the past, the analyses done on the water samples have shown that where cyanobacteria are not visible to the naked eye, we don’t see elevated levels of toxins.

more questions about cyanobacteria

Can cyanobacteria be airborne?

High winds and large waves in the ocean are known to create aerosolized droplets that contain cyanobacteria. Scientists are not sure if cyanobacteria cells can become airborne on Vermont lakes, which have calmer conditions than the ocean.

Some activities—such as water skiing—may create droplets of water that can be breathed in. Those droplets could contain cyanobacteria cells during a cyanobacteria bloom. If aerosolized droplets are formed, it is not known how far the droplets carrying cyanobacteria cells could travel in the air. This would depend on the size, shape, density and other physical properties of the cyanobacteria cells.

Microcystins, the most commonly found cyanotoxins in the U.S., are large molecules that are not volatile, meaning they would not evaporate into the air from the water. Therefore, these molecules would only be breathed in if water droplets containing the toxin are created through wind, waves, boat motors, etc.

It is unknown whether anatoxin-a and cylindrospermopsin, which are other types of cyanotoxins, can volatilize from water.

Can I eat fish out of a lake when there are cyanobacteria blooms?

We recommend cleaning the fish properly and not eating organs—such as the liver—which may accumulate cyanobacteria toxins. During periods of blooms, anglers should not eat fish caught in a bloom to reduce exposure to cyanobacteria toxins.

We do not know how long cyanotoxins may remain in fish organs when fish swim in blooms.

Where can I find historic data?

Season summary maps go back to 2012. From each of those maps, you can download the raw data.

Annual monitoring reports are available from the Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Lake Champlain Basin Program has technical reports dating back to 2001 about the occurrence of cyanobacteria in Lake Champlain.

What are the recommendations for beach managers?

Beach managers should visually monitor the water on a routine basis.

If a cyanobacteria bloom is observed in a swim area, beach managers should close the swim area and post signs to prohibit wading and swimming. The swim area should remain closed for the duration of bloom. Keep in mind that cyanobacteria can regulate their buoyancy and may move down in the water column at night but reappear in the late morning or early afternoon the next day.

The day after the bloom has dissipated, the water may be sampled and taken to the Health Department Laboratory for toxin testing. If results come back below the Health Department’s guidance levels, the swim area may be re-opened.

What are the guidance levels for cyanotoxins?

Recreational Water Values:

  • Microcystin: 6 ug/L (micrograms per liter)
  • Anatoxin-a: 10 ug/L
  • Cylindrospermopsin: 10 ug/L

Drinking Water Values:

  • Microcystin: 0.16 ug/L
  • Anatoxin-a: 0.5 ug/L
  • Cylindrospermopsin: 0.5 ug/L
Is there guidance for Vermont communities?

Cyanobacteria blooms are expected to continue to increase in the coming years due to climate change and more nutrients—nitrogen and phosphorus—running off into waterways. Lakes and ponds previously not impacted by blooms may experience blooms. The Health Department offers a tool and reference guide for communities experiencing cyanobacteria blooms. This guide is intended for lakes and ponds with new or sporadic appearances of blooms. It is not appropriate for guidance in heavily impacted areas. This guide is not a regulatory guide, a prevention manual, nor a practice for public water system operation.

Cyanobacteria Guidance for Vermont Communities

Is there information on cyanobacteria and neurological diseases?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease, is a devastating disease with no known cause. Only 5 to 10 percent of people with ALS have a family history (i.e. genetic cause) of the disease.

BMAA is an amino acid produced by some cyanobacteria. Researchers are testing the hypothesis of a link between BMAA exposure and ALS. This research is very preliminary and has not been proven. The Health Department will continue to review information as it becomes available.