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Here we go again. A few months ago it was the residents of West Virginia who were advised not to drink their tap water after a chemical spill in the Elk River – source of their drinking water.
Now more than 400,000 people living in Toledo, Ohio have been advised not to drink their tap water due to “Algae Blooms” in Lake Erie.
Usually when an emergency arises with the water, the official’s advice offered is to “boil the water” but in Toledo the authorities are advised against boiling the water. Why would that be?
Let’s first figure out what we are talking about. The algae in question are often called “Blue Green” algae. This algae grow in warm water and flourish when there are phosphates present. Every few years the algae grow and coagulate like this week in Lake Erie. The last outbreak was in 2011.
The algae release Cyanobacteria which create a toxin, microcystin. Microcystin is a powerful toxin that can cause liver damage. According to the Minnesota Department of Health when swallowed, it can cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, severe headaches and fever. There have been no reported deaths from this toxin but pets and wildlife are known to be killed from the toxin. It’s the toxin remaining in the boiled water than has the authorities worried.

As Toledo emerges from this situation and people return to using their tap water some interesting questions come to mind. If they had a household filtration system or a reverse osmosis system would these systems now be contaminated and require new filters or membranes? It the water was considered too contaminated even to boil but now it is OK to drink, how long should water be run through the pipes to ensure there is no residual contamination?
Finally, for those persons wise enough to have had a quality-designed home or office water distiller, you should be OK during this and similar situations.
Distillation operates differently to any filter. In distillation, the water is boiled, killing the bacteria (but not the toxins). Once boiled, the steam rises and lifts away from the contaminants leaving virtually all behind. In response to my question, Dr. Daniel Snow, Research Associate Professor at University of Nebraska, Water Sciences Laboratory responded “ I agree that distillation will effectively remove microcystins from lake water”.
Even though the Lake Erie situation may be off from front burner, algae blooms are not restricted to Lake Erie. In fact there are many inland lakes that have this situation every summer. That is when the “do not swim here” signs come out too.
To confirm the effectiveness of distillation we are obtaining water samples from Lake Erie to run through a distiller. We will then have a third party testing laboratory conduct testing on the distilled water produced. If it’s like all other similar tests we have done I’ll wager the distilled water will show no signs of microcystin toxin. Seems like Dr Snow already knows this. We’ll keep you up with the results as we get them.

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