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Algae toxin levels prompt alarm

A South Umpqua River bar contained the highest levels of blue-green algae toxins ever found in Oregon — and perhaps one of the highest ever recorded nationwide — when a dog swimming in the water there died Aug. 23 from an apparent reaction to the toxins, authorities said.

Tests conducted on water at the Lawson Bar area the day after the dog's death showed levels of blue-green algae toxins as high as 200 micrograms per liter of water, according to the state Department of Human Services.

That level is 400 times higher than toxicity levels found in August 2009 at an Umpqua River pool near Elkton where a dog became the first pet whose death proved to be from the toxins, said Jennifer Ketterman, who heads DHS's Harmful Algae Bloom Surveillance Program.

It is the highest level of these so-called "ana-toxins" ever discovered in testing by Greenwater Laboratories, a Florida lab used nationally for algae tests, Ketterman said.

"That amount of toxins is huge," said Jerry Meyer, environmental health program supervisor for the Douglas County Health Department.

"What makes us really concerned is that we have dogs dying that weigh as much as an 8-year-old kid," Meyer said. "We have a lot of kids using the river."

To date, no documented cases of people getting sick from the algae have been confirmed in Oregon. Also, results of tests on the 6-month-old Labrador that died last week were not yet available, health officials said.

Meyer said dogs appear more susceptible than humans, in part because of their penchant for drinking river or lake water.

But the results have alarmed health officials enough that the state Department of Environmental Quality plans next week to test for the toxins over a 15-mile swath of the South Umpqua between Canyonville and Myrtle Creek, Meyer said.

State and county health officials have continued their voluntary public health advisory against water contact at Lawson Bar off Interstate 5's Exit 102 near Canyonville. But on Wednesday they added more warning signs with stiffer language about avoiding the water, Ketterman said.

It is one of nine current public health advisories in place over algae blooms, with the bloom at the Whetstone Pond on the Denman Wildlife Area the only current advisory in Jackson County.

DHS officials have issued 16 such advisories so far this year.

Typically, the advisories remain in effect for up to two weeks after the algae dies off.

Each bloom does not necessarily release the toxins, which can take up to two weeks to dissipate naturally.

With the presence of the toxins, health officials warn people and pets to avoid swallowing or inhaling water droplets and to avoid skin contact with the water, though actual reactions are rare.

Exposure to toxins can produce symptoms of numbness, tingling and dizziness that can lead to difficulty breathing or heart problems and require immediate medical attention.

Symptoms of skin irritation, weakness, diarrhea, nausea, cramps and fainting should also receive medical attention if they persist or worsen.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.