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Green goo growing in Lake Erie is not what you think it is

The Environment Report for Thursday, August 28, 2014- Experts debate proper terminology for Lake Erie's green slime 

Lately, that green slime in the lake has been all over the news after it shut down Toledo’s water supply.

Journalists, city and government officials have been calling that green slime  “blue-green algae”, “toxic algae” or “toxic algal blooms.”

Well, turns out that’s not exactly right.

“That’s just maddening,” said James Bull, a professor of biology and environmental science. He works at Wayne County Community College and Macomb Community College.

He says it’s not accurate to call the green slime that shut down Toledo’s water system “a toxic algal bloom.” 

He wrote to Michigan Radio because we were some of the people using the wrong term.

“It’s wrong because even though these organisms superficially look like algae, I think we ought to understand that these really are a kind of bacteria,” Bull said.

He says scientists used to call this stuff “blue-green algae.” Now they call it “cyanobacteria.” He says calling cyanobacteria "algae" is like calling a dolphin a fish.

Using the wrong word can confuse public, students

And for Bull, it’s a little personal. We’ve been making his job harder. He’s been teaching his students about cyanobacteria.

“And then they hear on the news: “algae.” And they think it’s algae!” he said.

Just to be clear  – there are blooms of algae on Lake Erie, but the thing that bloomed in the lake and released the toxin that shut down Toledo’s water supply is a kind of bacteria.

Both algae and cyanobacteria grow like crazy when exposed to phosphorus. Too much phosphorus can lead to trouble either way.

But reporters are in a pickle here. We’re talking to scientists and government officials and environmental groups who are all still saying “toxic algae” or “toxic algal bloom.” 

Scientists sometimes use the wrong word too

I also wanted to know why so many scientists are still using that term, so I called up an expert on Lake Erie and all things algae and bacteria. Jeff Reutter directs the Ohio Sea Grant College Program and Stone Laboratory at Ohio State University.

I interviewed him last fall about these blooms and he referred to them as "algal blooms." 

”Well, it's a common terminology even when you think of the terminology that the federal government uses, they often refer to these as 'HABs'– Harmful Algal Blooms," Reuttersaid. “So that's typically how we refer to them, and it's the way the general public refers to them.”

We as journalists get confused sometimes if the scientists are still using terms that maybe they shouldn't be using.

"Well, as scientists, we need to do a better job of communicating with the public. And so it's important to communicate in a way that the public will understand," Reutter said. "And, quite frankly, not just the general public but our managers, our decision makers, and our elected officials."

Reutter says science is always progressing and as scientists learn more, they try to make corrections. 

But he says sometimes those older terms just kind of hang around.

And let’s face it, "cyanobacteria"  just doesn’t have the same headline grabbing power as the words "toxic algae" do.

But Professor Bull still wants to make sure cyanobacteria get their due.

When asked how it would make him feel if everyone started using the right term. He responded, "It would make me feel great... like, YES!”

OK, we stand corrected.         

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

A shot from the Lake Erie Water Keeper's boat.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A shot from the Lake Erie Water Keeper's boat.
Cyanobacteria growing in western Lake Erie in Sept. 2013.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Cyanobacteria growing in western Lake Erie in Sept. 2013.

Rebecca Williams