Working on shaky ground
Every summer I work at a boathouse in Rockville, Maryland. For the past two summers we have had signs posted all around the lake warning of contaminated water. This summer our boathouse was even interviewed and shown on the news, due to this problem. County officials tested the waters and claimed that the water was safe for individuals to stay in the vicinity, but unsafe if ingested in large amounts. Therefore the boathouse stayed open. Large controversy surrounded my area of work for the past two consecutive summers concerning a topic I knew little about. This all changed once I entered Microbiology class this semester. I find it interesting that the information I learned in this class touched on a topic so close to home for me.
A new piece of information I picked up working at the boathouse this past summer is that all lakes in Maryland are man -made. Due to such high amounts of fertilizer run off in suburban areas the majority of bodies of water in the Chesapeake Bay area are contaminated with the same microorganisms that Lake Needwood was. But what was this microorganism? We as Park staff were told that the water contained blooming Blue Green Algae scientifically known as Cyanobacteria, specifically it “contain[ed] strains of Microcystin, which can damage the liver and cause gastrointestinal discomfort when ingested and cause minor skin irritation upon contact” (Lui,2013).
To the common person who is uninformed on the classification of microorganisms this sounds extremely dangerous and makes it seem as though even being in the same vicinity of a body of water with this algae could be detrimental to one’s health. Even to an Employee in the loop on the status of the water safety, the water’s presence of this unknown algae frightened me, as it is common that we as park staff dip our feet into the water often as we load patrons onto boats. However, as I have almost completed a semester on Microbiology I know understand a lot more on the specifics of the issue.
Specifically, one concept I learned in class this semester is that the majority of algae species do not harm the human body. Unfortunately there are certain types of Algae blooms that can produce toxins that can affect a number of living beings including humans. However, simply touching contaminated water with the skin is not known to be fatal, only drinking large amounts is known to cause fatality.
In the article reporting the presence of Blue green Algae at Lake Needwood, it discusses that a park Patron, which was mistakenly reported rather than a park employee, took samples of the lake that were sent out to be tested in order to determine the type of bacteria present. I along with my boss was the park employee who collected these samples and sent them to be tested. I find it ironic that only this past summer I had no idea what I was doing when I was collecting samples at work on a microorganism, but now I understand thanks to Micro lab and specifically, our water and food analysis lab what went into testing for the unknown in the water sample. It is very rewarding to me to be able to understand on a different level what exactly was wrong with the water I work with during the summer. My new perspective on the understanding of microorganisms and how to perform tests to identify them will better help me explain the health risks to park patrons visiting this coming summer.