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Deaths of four dogs may have been from Umpqua basin algae outbreak

Health authorities expect to learn this week whether two of four dogs that died recently after swimming in algae-laced water in the Umpqua River basin are Oregon's first pets confirmed to have died from algae-induced toxins.

The state Department of Environmental Quality on Friday issued a public-health advisory against water contact on parts of the lower Umpqua and Elk Creek, a tributary flowing through the town of Elkton.

The voluntary advisory came after tests showed the water possessed toxins released from a bloom of anabaena flos-aque. The toxins are suspected to have caused the deaths of four area dogs.

Oregon has never had a confirmed case of toxin-related death in dogs, but the circumstances here were such that the DEQ ordered its first test aimed at a confirmation.

"Since it was four, it really caught wind and fire," said Laura Boswell, the DEQ's Harmful Algae Bloom Program coordinator, which tracks blue-green algae outbreaks. "It certainly got everyone's attention."

Two out-of-state labs this week have been testing tissue samples from two of those dead dogs, Boswell says.

"Getting that confirmation is really tough," Boswell says. "You need the toxins in the tissue.

"This is about as close as we've come, so far."

Health officials also have one unconfirmed report of a human illness involving ingestion or inhaling of the toxins from the water there, Boswell says.

The dogs began dying along the Umpqua banks five weeks ago, including two dogs that died while their owner was fishing in the Elkton area, says Jerry Meyer, environmental health program supervisor for Douglas County.

Police initially believed the dogs likely were poisoned, Meyer says. After environmental health officials suspected algae, teams walked the bank but found no other dead animals, Meyer says.

"You'd think there would be dead 'coons or possums," Meyer says. "That's been kind of a mystery and it's why we really want to see what those test results say."

So far this year, four unconfirmed illnesses in humans have been linked to the toxins, which can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritations to nausea, dizziness and even death, according to the DEQ.

Boswell says medical privacy laws ban her from identifying where those suspected human cases occurred.

A public-health advisory against water contact occurred in late June at Lost Creek Lake. An advisory in place since July 23 at Whetstone Pond at the Denman Wildlife Area was lifted Wednesday.

This latest public-health advisory is in effect on the mainstem Umpqua from Sawyer's Rapids upstream to the mouth of Elk Creek at Elkton. On Elk Creek, the advisory covers water from the mouth upstream to the Elk Creek Tunnel on Highway 38.

High levels of the toxins were found in stagnant pools adjacent to the creek and river, and residual toxin levels were found in Elk Creek at its confluence with the Umpqua, health officials report.

Boswell says the advisory boundaries were selected because they are identifiable locations that together envelop the area where the toxins are thought to be present.

The advisory will remain in effect until further notice. No date for a second test has been set, Boswell says.

Under state guidelines, the advisory will remain until two weeks after the algae bloom dies off so the toxin levels can dissipate naturally.

The Umpqua is only the second Oregon river or stream that has received a public-health advisory for algae blooms, which are mostly associated with stagnant lake, pond or reservoir water, Boswell says.

Last year, an advisory was issued for the Tualatin River in northwest Oregon.

During advisories, swallowing or inhaling water droplets should be avoided, as well as skin contact with the water by humans or animals. Drinking stagnant water from these pools is considered especially dangerous.

For more information on blue-green algae and a list of current and former public-health advisories, visit the DEQ's Web site at www.oregon.gov/DHS/ph/hab/.

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