Division of Water working with IRONMAN to ensure safety of athletes from harmful algal blooms on Ohio River

FRANKFORT, Ky. (Oct. 2, 2015) – With several thousand IRONMAN triathletes expected in Louisville on Sunday, Oct. 11 for the annual IRONMAN Louisville triathlon, the Kentucky Division of Water (DOW), the Kentucky Department of Public Health (DPH) and representatives from IRONMAN are working together over the next nine days to assess the safety conditions of the Ohio River on race day after harmful algal blooms (HABs) were confirmed in the Louisville area.

HABs in the Ohio River prompted a recreational advisory that extends from the West Virginia state line to the Cannelton Locks and Dam located in Hancock County, Kentucky. Because the swim portion of the IRONMAN triathlon takes place in the affected area, IRONMAN and DOW will confirm water test results are within safe levels prior to inclusion of the swim.

“We want the swim portion of the race to take place, but only if it’s deemed safe for the athletes as determined through testing and visual confirmation that HABs are at safe levels in the river,” said Eric Atnip, race director for IRONMAN Louisville.

DOW has agreed to perform as many as four sampling and testing cycles in and around the race course between today and three days before the race to confirm the presence or absence of HABs in the river. If the recreational advisory can be lifted–even hours before the race is scheduled to start–the swim may go on as planned. Visual confirmation of no HABs and consecutive negative tests for microcystin toxins are the standard for DOW and the DPH to lift the advisory.

“This is an important international event, and we want to make sure that IRONMAN officials have the information that they need to determine whether conditions in the river are safe for their athletes,” said DOW Director Peter Goodmann. “The Division of Water will conduct testing in the race area over the next several days. We have discussed with IRONMAN officials the risks associated with HABs, and want to ensure that race officials have adequate, reliable information for making a determination about holding the swim event.”

On Aug. 31, DOW received a report of an algal bloom on the Ohio River near Greenup. Subsequent sampling of the river indicated higher levels of microcystin toxins existed in some areas of the Ohio River from Ashland to the Meldahl Dam. DOW issued a recreational advisory on Sept. 4 from the West Virginia line to Meldahl Dam. Since that time, conditions favorable for the development of HABs have persisted throughout the river basin, and additional HABs have formed further downstream.

On Sept. 11 the advisory was extended to the Markland Dam. Observations of a significant bloom near Carrolton and Madison, Ind. were made by Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) staff on Sept. 16. On Sept. 17, DOW staff observed blooms at Cox Park and Harrods Creek in Louisville and at Prospect. DOW personnel also observed a significant bloom near West Point. on Sept. 17. These observations and preliminary analysis indicate the need to extend the Ohio River and tributaries recreational advisory beyond the Markland Dam area to the Cannelton Dam area in Louisville. Samples have been collected and are being analyzed to measure the presence of any harmful elements.

Harmful algal blooms arise when there are excess nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), sunny conditions, warm temperatures and low-flow or low-water conditions. DOW and IRONMAN are hopeful these conditions will improve in the Ohio River given the recent drop in air and water temperature, as well an increase in precipitation.

Blue-green algae occur naturally in the environment and are a vital part of the ecosystem.  The more typical green algae, which do not produce toxins, come in many forms and may appear as underwater moss or stringy mats. Blue-green algae, on the other hand, appear as slicks of opaque, bright-green paint, but closer inspection often reveals the grainy, sawdust-like appearance of individual colonies or bacteria.

The color of the algae may also appear red or brown.

The following guidelines are recommended to avoid exposure to HABs:

  • Individuals should avoid direct contact with affected water that has unusual color or where blue-green bacteria have been identified, including swimming, wading, paddling, diving and water skiing.
  • Water swallowed during recreational activities in this body of water may increase the risk of gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and possible liver damage. Skin, eye and throat irritation and/or breathing difficulties may also occur after contact.
  • People who are prone to respiratory allergies or asthma should avoid areas with HABs. Children may be particularly sensitive.
  • If contact has been made with water containing blue-green algae, wash off with fresh water. In some cases, skin irritation will appear after prolonged exposure. If symptoms persist, consult your health care provider.
  • If fishing in affected waters, fish fillets (not organs) may be consumed after the fillets have been rinsed in clean, non-lake water.
  • Prevent pets and livestock from coming into contact with water where HAB is apparent.

If you are concerned that you have symptoms that are a result of exposure to HABs please see your doctor and call your local health department.

For additional information about this advisory, contact Andrea Keatley at the Kentucky Division of Water at (502) 564-3410 or Justin T. Carey, Division of Public Health Protection and Safety, Department for Public Health, at (502) 564-7398. http://water.ky.gov/waterquality/pages/HABS.aspx