TOLEDO — Toxins possibly from algae on Lake Erie fouled the water supply of the state’s fourth-largest city Saturday, forcing officials to issue warnings not to drink the water and the governor to declare a state of emergency.
Worried residents descended on stores, quickly clearing shelves of bottled water.
The city advised about 400,000 residents in Toledo, most of its suburbs and a few areas in southeastern Michigan not to brush their teeth with or boil the water because that would only increase the toxin’s concentration. The mayor also warned that children should not shower or bathe in the water and that it shouldn’t be given to pets.
Toledo issued the warning just after midnight after tests at one treatment plant showed two sample readings for microsystin above the standard for consumption.
A water official in Avon Lake, however, said there is no need to fear drinking water in Lorain County.
Steve Heimlich, Avon Lake Regional Water plant filtration manager, who formerly worked for Ottawa County Regional Water in Port Clinton, said the Maumee River watershed feeds Lake Erie in the Toledo area and a rise in phosphate levels in runoff encourages potentially toxic algae to reproduce and create toxins like microsystin, which was elevated in Toledo water.
Heimlich said Avon Lake Regional Water took precautions when Toledo issued their warning, taking extra samples Saturday morning to make sure their microsystin levels were within proper limits.
“We’re below the limit,” Heimlich said. “World Health Organization levels for microsystin say it should be below 1.0 parts per billion. The levels being reported in Toledo tap water is 2.1.”
Heimlich said Avon Lake Regional Water had its chief chemist come in on Saturday just to make sure that algae has not affected water quality in Lorain County.
“In 2011 we had algae that came across the whole lake and stretched into Cleveland, but it wasn’t the type of algae that Toledo is seeing now,” Heimlich said. “We’re going to continually monitor the situation.”
Algae blooms during the summer have become more frequent and troublesome around the western end of Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes.
Algae growth is fed by phosphorous mainly from farm fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plants, leaving behind toxins that have contributed to oxygen-deprived dead zones where fish can’t survive. The toxins can kill animals and sicken humans.
Scientists had predicted a significant bloom of the blue-green algae this year, but they didn’t expect it to peak until early September.
Gov. John Kasich’s emergency order issued Saturday allowed the state to begin bringing water into the Toledo area. Large containers were being filled with water at a prison near Columbus and trucked about 130 miles north to Toledo, said Joe Andrews, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety.
The state also asked major grocery chains to divert as much water as they can to northwest Ohio, Andrews said.
People reportedly flocked to grocery stores, clearing shelves of bottled water up to 50 miles outside of Toledo. In Lorain County, bottled water was still stocked on grocery store shelves and several store clerks said they did not see any more water sales than usual.
“We’re going to be prepared to make sure people are not without water,” said Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins.
He said officials won’t decide whether the Lake Erie water supply is safe to drink until they receive all the test results, possibly by this morning.
There were no reports Saturday night of people becoming sick from drinking the water, Collins said.
Samples of water were flown to the federal and state Environmental Protection Agency offices in Cincinnati and Columbus and a university in Michigan for additional testing, officials said.
Police officers were called to stores as residents lined up to buy bottled water, bags of ice and flavored water.
“People were hoarding it. It’s ridiculous,” said Monica Morales, who bought several cases of bottled water before the store sold out of water a half-hour after opening.
Operators of water plants all along Lake Erie, which supply drinking water for 11 million people, have been concerned over the last few years about toxins fouling their supplies.
Almost a year ago, one township just east of Toledo told its 2,000 residents not to drink or use the water coming from their taps.
Most water treatment plants along the western Lake Erie shoreline treat their water to combat the algae. Toledo spent about $4 million last year on chemicals to treat its water and combat the toxins.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Contact Jon Wysochanski at 329-7123