WA Dept. of Health warns of toxic algae in Spokane area

OLYMPIA, Wash. — If you plan on going swimming in the lake or river in Washington, you better check first for toxic algae before diving in, which has poisoned several dogs in a couple Spokane area rivers.

Washington State Department of Health (DOH) advised people on Saturday to take precautions while playing in the water this summer. Toxic algae has bloomed in some state lakes and rivers and is dangerous for people, pets and wildlife. The blooms can vary in appearance, but they mostly look like pea soup or blue-green in color.

A harmful algae bloom occurs when algae with toxic strains starts to grow in freshwater or saltwater, the DOH said. Freshwater algae blooms caused by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) are most common in lakes, but can occur in rivers and streams with warm, slow-moving and stagnant waters.

After three dogs died swimming in the Little Spokane River near Chattaroy, and one dog became sick after swimming in the Spokane River near Harvard Road Bridge, DOH, Washington State Department of Ecology, and Spokane Regional Health District are investigating Spokane area water sources. While cyanobacteria blooms in rivers are rare, the DOH says the hot, dry weather and low water flows have led to confirmed blooms in both areas where the dogs had been swimming.

DOH said the toxicity of each bloom can vary and is difficult to predict. Toxicity can change from one day to the next. It isn’t possible to determine how dangerous a bloom is to people and animals by looking at it. Only testing can tell if it is dangerous.

They added the extreme heat from this summer and lower than normal water levels can create an ideal environment for organisms to easily grow and multiply.

“Due to ongoing drought and warm temperatures in our state, lakes, rivers, and streams are under tremendous stress right now,” said Acting Chief Science Officer Scott Lindquist, MD, MPH. “As a result, we are receiving reports of toxic algae blooms in areas we have not seen before.”

Dogs and other animals are often exposed by drinking contaminated water, swallowing water while swimming, or licking cyanobacteria from their fur.

If you think your pets have been exposed to a toxic algae bloom, DOH says to immediately wash them off with clean water to keep them from licking the bacteria off their fur. Possible signs that your pet might have been exposed include vomiting and/or diarrhea, loss of coordination and tremors and seizures.

People are encouraged to take these precautions when going to a river or lake: Look for signs of toxic algae blooms and pay attention to signage; do not swim in and limit exposure to water that is under a health advisory or is listed as having a toxic algae on the Washington State Department of Ecology toxic algae tracking site; people swimming or playing in the water should shower with soap and water after they get out; contact a healthcare provider immediately if you become ill or have symptoms of after a suspected exposure to algae bloom; and report suspected toxic algae blooms online at the Washington State toxic algae tracking site or contact your local health jurisdiction.

RELATED: Public health advisories issued for toxic algae in Hayden and Fernan lakes