Benton Franklin Health District monitors waterways for toxic algae

KENNEWICK, Wash. — It’s the magic number Benton Franklin Health District Lab Supervisor Jillian Legard is looking for when testing water samples for toxins from algal blooms.

“Zero point one-five micrograms per liter; that’s go time. We’re going to be putting up signs warning people that we have found toxins in the water,” she explained.

It’s part of the new waterway monitoring program at the Benton Franklin Health District in response to last September, when one dog died, and others were sickened by toxic algae exposure in the Columbia River.

“How can we do something to screen for toxins locally and be more proactive?” was the question health officials like Rick Dawson were asking when it all happened.

BFHD began taking samples and sending them to King County, which took days to get results.

Dawson said they wanted to expedite the process.

“The municipalities and the health district are going to collect samples from drinking water intakes and recreational water sites strategically throughout the area to monitor for toxins,” he said.

Kennewick, Pasco, Richland and West Richland all entered into an interlocal agreement with the Benton Franklin Health District to pay for ongoing testing.

RELATED: Testing along Columbia, Yakima Rivers begins

One of the key components of the program is the ELISA plate reader.

“We can fit all 14 of our sites with room to grow on a plate the size of a smart phone,” Legard said.

The health district had to wait months for the ELISA device to arrive, due to supply chain issues. Legard said they’re still waiting on some other parts for water testing, but they’re making do with what they have now in order to get testing done.

Jillian explained the process after water samples are brought back to the lab.

Essentially, the device measures the water’s color after agents have been layered on it by Jillian.

“Our plate reader will read that, and it will let me know whether a toxin is present of absent based on the color intensity,” she said.

“The detection limit we’re looking at is well below any kind of action level that we would need to take for public protection,” Dawson added.

If toxins are detected in the sample, the Benton Franklin Health District said more of that same sample would be sent to King County for further, more detailed testing.

The equipment the health district has is ideal for routine testing the 14 samples every two weeks.

“Really, really good feeling that our little community lab could potentially be saving lives,” Jillian said.

The health district reminded everyone there is always a certain risk when recreating in open water and if you see something that seems out of the ordinary, report it to the health district. They have posters along the water with a QR code to scan.

You can monitor algal blooms in Washington waterways here.