Back in August of 2014, half a million people in Ohio and parts of Michigan found themselves without drinking water. Though not as large as those seen in the past, an “algae” bloom at the west end of Lake Erie meant that the water became rich in microcystin, a toxic product produced by cyanobacteria.
Time for a tiny bit of Science
Of course, cyanobacteria are not really algae at all. We used to think that they were part of that family, and we called them blue-green algae, but we now know that they are “true bacteria”. There are over 3,000 recorded varieties, but biologists argue that it’s probably in excess of 6,800, or possibly as high as 8,000 different types.
Cyanobacteria have been with us for 3½ billion years, and are the source of the oldest fossils that exist. They are also responsible for the fact that you are alive.
These tiny little single-cell organisms absorb sunlight and use its energy (photosynthesis), along with carbonates dissolved in the water, to make food for themselves in the form of simple sugars. During this process they excrete a few molecules of oxygen. Billions of years ago there was no oxygen in the atmosphere; that meant that life as we know it could not have existed.
Trillions of quadrillions of cyanobacteria had a different idea. To the other simple life forms alive at that time, oxygen was a deadly poison. By creating oxygen, methane levels in the atmosphere plummeted, and as a result the cyanobacteria killed off almost all the competing bacteria.
About two billion years ago endosymbiosis was responsible for the more advanced eukaryotic cells incorporating cyanobacteria inside them. The bacteria made food for the cell in exchange for a safe place to live. Eventually that gave rise to all of the plants by providing them with the ability to use photosynthesis, making food out of sunlight, carbon, and water.
Humans use bacteria every single day. We use them to make our cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products, and numerous other things. We even use them to clean up oil spills and digest nuclear waste and make biofuel for our vehicles. Only a few are actually harmful to us, and many cyanobacteria are actually good for the water by oxygenating it and for plants by providing them with nitrogen.
What about the “actual” algae?
True Algae sit at the base of the food chain. The smallest oceanic organisms eat algae, which in turn are eaten by larger things, and so on. Some immense whales actually live on phytoplankton that ranges in size from 0.2 mm (a quarter of the size of this period “.”) to 20 mm (¾ of an inch).
True algae is single-celled, like its bacteria-cousins, but it can gather together to form composite organisms such as kelp, plankton, and seaweed. Generally speaking, it is green, brown, or red, and is much less likely to produce toxic byproducts.
That is not to say that it cannot be toxic… You’ve probably heard of Red Tides. The algae responsible for those are called dinoflagellates and can live in both salt and fresh water. They can poison fish, crabs, and other shellfish; eating these living, but poisoned animals, can be so toxic that it is actually fatal to human beings.
Neither of these microbes is entirely innocent. Although most bacteria and most algae are harmless to humans, and in some cases quite nutritious, there are always a few rotten apples.
Where can I encounter them?
No matter where you are in the world you’ll encounter one or both of these two. If you’re using municipal water, especially if it’s drawn from large reservoirs or lakes, it is generally regarded as safe. If there is a large algae or cyanobacteria bloom that could be harmful to humans, you’ll be advised by your water supplier about what steps to take.
If you have a well, as long as it is completely closed with no light available, algae and cyanobacteria cannot grow; they are dependent on sunlight. If your water is delivered by truck, it follows the same rules as municipal water.
If you collect rain water, your collection system (barrels or cistern) must be lightproof as well to prevent their growth. The old Australian custom of putting some pieces of silverware in the cistern is surprisingly effective at killing bacteria. Ions of silver in the water interfere with the bacteria’s ability to maintain its cell-wall, and it dies.
Even though all algae and bacteria are not bad for you, some of them definitely are. The KDF 55 portion of our shower filter stands on permanent guard, eliminating them all, so you don’t have to worry which is which. After all, a shower is supposed to wash away your cares; it’s designed to reduce your stress, not create more of it!
Have a look at our collection of filters and fixtures, pick one you like, and relax…
If you live in an area with over-chlorinated water and other undesirable contaminants (as most of us do), please feel free to look over our exceptional selection of high quality filtration products. We’re more than happy to answer any questions you may have. Just click here to go directly to our online contact form and we’ll get back to you within 24 hours!