How to Combat Cyanotoxin Contamination & Improve Communications

May 5, 2021

How dealers can mitigate emerging contaminant complications & improve crisis communication

About the author:

Nathan Lowrie is director of sales & marketing for Shiloh Water Systems Inc. Lowrie can be reached at [email protected].

Emerging contaminants are the topic de jour across the U.S. and have been for some time now. Thanks to efforts within the water treatment industry from the dealer level to trade organizations and manufacturers, more visibility into harmful water contaminants is on the forefront of federal, state and local agency’s agendas. At a federal level, the U.S. EPA is acknowledging and working with states, cities and industry groups to address harmful contaminants in America’s drinking water. One of the more fascinating and interesting of these contaminants is cyanotoxins.

There are numerous challenges for the water filtration industry when it comes to emerging contaminants. Largely, there are no ANSI/NSF certifications for equipment to solve these issues. At the dealer level, everyone is scrambling to answer fearful customer inquiries as a result of breaking news coverage that may come as a surprise to the local water filter provider. Crisis communications has become a tactic required to professionally interact with a panicked public. Let us take a look at how to successfully handle a local cyanotoxin crisis and take care of customers’ needs and fears while providing affective dependable water solutions. 

What Are Cyanotoxins?

An internet search engine is a great place to start in gaining a cursory knowledge of what cyanotoxins are. HAB’s, or harmful algae blooms, have occurred across North America for decades. Areas like upstate New York, Florida, the Pacific Northwest, and Toledo, Ohio, have dealt with high biomass toxic blooms. Cyanobacteria are not actually an algae, but rather a freshwater bacteria with no nucleus that thrives in high nutrient environments and the right weather conditions utilizing photosynthesis to reproduce. The algae itself is nontoxic until it dies and the cell wall breaks down releasing the intracellular toxin. The toxins can be particularly harmful in large quantities for humans, animals and pets ingesting, inhaling or through direct skin contact. This is problematic for cities that rely on vulnerable surface water sources for drinking water.

Municipalities have guidelines for treating cyanotoxins provided by the EPA. Treatment techniques range from oxidation and coagulation to membranes and the use of PAC (powdered activated carbon) and other carbons. Treatment effectiveness is largely influenced by the concentration of the bacteria and the type and level of toxin it is producing. 

Larry Zinser, a long-time water treatment designer at Master Water Conditioning in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, emphasized in a recent conversation that treatment for intra and extracellular cyanotoxins really need to happen at a source level, and that there is ongoing progress and success in Ohio and with the Canadians on Lake Erie, for example. However, private water sources and small municipalities often struggle to treat drinking water due to limited resources, the very reason for the renewed focus by the Water Quality Association (WQA) in Washington D.C. in educating leaders on the challenges being faced by many communities. All too frequently, traditional treatment methodologies used in the municipal water treatment world are nearly impossible to scale for a small water system or residential solution.

How to Combat Cyanotoxin Contamination

So what can local water treatment providers do when they are confronted with a community or private well owner who is dealing with a cyanobacteria event in their water source? First, let us look at what data we do have from the big boys—the American Water Works Association (AWWA). AWWA’s study looked at three of the most common cyanotoxins dealt with in North America. The study found that with the use of granular activated carbon (GAC) they could effectively treat 1,000 gallons of water with 0.2 pounds of GAC even when the bed is at or near the end of its service life. The study acknowledged that longer term studies would be needed to quantify the adsorption capacities of the three toxins. Contact time is everything and it can be a real challenge for a residential application, and can only be grasped with a firm knowledge of toxin loads in the influent water. 

Ben Testa, CWS1 at Aquasource Inc. in Bloomfield, New York, acknowledged this obstacle, as well. He has been researching and developing solutions for the annual blooms experienced in New York. Calgon Carbon has also been at the forefront of this issue, providing an emergency solution for Owasco, New York. In 2017, using Filtrasorb GAC, Calgon was successfully able to treat the community’s drinking water to acceptable levels at a sustainable cost for the small tourist destination.

Cyanotoxin Contamination Hit Salem, Oregon

In 2018, Salem, Oregon, was dealing with its highest HAB ever. With the perfect combination of high nutrient levels and unseasonably warm temperatures, the state’s capitol and its surrounding communities went into panic mode and issued an emergency do-not-drink order for tens of thousands of people. The National Guard was even called in to help provide clean drinking water throughout the community. With phones ringing off the hook, local residential water treatment dealers were taken off guard. 

Shiloh Water Systems in Mt. Angel, Oregon, (the author’s home dealership) had already been addressing the issue. Downstream of the reservoir where the bloom had been occurring for several years, private residents had experienced health issues from drinking and bathing in the toxic water. In consultation with industry professionals and manufacturers, Shiloh Water Systems put together a residential solution. Pilot testing is everything, and that provided the dealership with the technical experience to design a solution which would garner success. 

Testing can be a challenge since it is unlikely your local lab tests for cyanobacteria/toxins. However, there are testing resources such as the LCRA, a private environmental lab in Texas, that can provide testing services and even ELISE testing kits that can be used by savvy dealerships for their own testing. A combination of clean water back flushing ultrafiltration, fine mesh wood-based carbon and chlorine injection, along with adequate pre-filtration was the successful design. When it came to treating municipal treated water, a similar set up was deployed without the chlorine injection stage.

Learning Crisis Communication

When coming up with a confident solution for addressing algae blooms, handling the public can be a daunting task. Training staff at the dealership in how to respond to questions and provide answers to sometimes difficult questions requires quick thinking and the development of a crisis communications strategy. This is critical in leveraging the opportunity from a financial standpoint and having confidence in dealing with the public, the media and even local health experts all looking for professional guidance on the crisis and potential solutions. Some filtration providers have learned through trial-by-fire experiencing their own emerging contaminant crisis, such as PFOS and PFOA, for example. 

There is great value in educating at least one person in the dealership on crisis communication so they can then in turn develop a comprehensive strategy and protocols that will be of benefit for years to come. Being the expert does not always mean one has all the answers, but knowing how to address a crisis and develop a strategy will mean the difference between missing a great opportunity to truly help people and engendering confidence in your business throughout the service territory. If anything, COVID-19 has brought to the forefront the need for understanding crisis communication and how that should impact what is said to a customer, as well as messaging and marketing strategies to the public.

Successfully handling emerging contaminant issues may be challenging. However, with the myriad of resources available today the internet, manufacturers, suppliers and trade organizations—such as the Water Systems Council, WQA, and even your local and state trade organizations—there is no reason why even small dealerships cannot professionally address a water contaminant crisis. Technology has made it easier and easier to rise above any challenge that presents itself and leverage that for success within your business and the community. 

Another part of successfully handling a contaminant issue is emphasizing education and embracing new technologies, then testing and implementing them in the field. Just 10 years ago the residential water treatment industry did not have near the technological and educational resources available now. Pick up the phone, reach out to experts you may not even know. You would be surprised how willing they might be to provide valuable information and additional resources. Experiment with new equipment, train employees, run pilot programs and test. Above all, be resourceful. Every challenge faced will make your business that much stronger and more profitable.

About the Author

Nathan Lowrie