OP-ED: The Deadly Algae Blooms are Coming



I remember coming home one day years ago to find that my mom had stockpiled almost a dozen bottles of Tide laundry detergent. Now, mom, having grown up during the Great Depression, was widely known for having shelves of various sundries, food, and toiletries; I guess she never wanted to go without again.

But her reason for buying that much Tide had nothing to do with hoarding so much as it did with the fact that detergent companies were dropping the highly-effective phosphates from their formulations. The new detergents, although better for the environment, did not clean as well, at least according to legions of moms out there.

Although good as a detergent additive, phosphates were found to impact the environment. Phosphorus makes for wonderful fertilizers and detergents, and despite proper treatment, the waste-water phosphates got into the rivers and streams and led to tremendous overgrowth of algae, which would frequently destroy small ponds and lakes, and lead to so-called ‘Dead Zones’ in our oceans.

By dramatically speeding up the process of eutrophication, these algal blooms cover small bodies of water and block out the sunlight the aquatic plants need for photosynthesis. With less oxygen available, fish die, and their decomposition consumes what little O2 remains in the water.

In a matter of weeks, that pond or small lake was dead, with no discernible life in the water. Although green and vibrant, the carpet of algae on the surface was a death sentence to the life below. Even worse, the phosphates affected our oceans.

Although too big to be covered in algae, regions of our oceans at the mouths of major rivers experienced their own annual, phosphate-driven death spiral, leading to hundreds and eventually thousands of square miles of ocean in which life virtually disappeared. These regions were referred to as Dead Zones and frequent the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.

But recently, these algal blooms are getting dangerously and uncomfortably close to home. Many of us remember the summer of 2016 when a massive algal bloom of toxic algae in Lake Erie shut down the water supply for 400,000 Toledo residents for days.

Just Google ‘Toledo algae blooms’ and look at the images. From space, the shocking size of the bloom is visible, covering the eastern quarter of Lake Erie.

So, if laundry detergents no longer contain phosphates, where is the phosphorus coming from that is killing off our lakes and oceans? Dish detergents have come under fire lately for their phosphate compounds, but not only are more companies dropping these phosphates, but the amount paled compared to the phosphates released by laundry detergents in the past.

So just where is all this new phosphate coming from?

Part of it is undoubtedly washout from farm fields, where runoff will often contain the fertilizer used in modern farming practices, but even that amount hasn’t changed substantially over the past two decades.

In fact, researchers are uncovering an enormous new source of phosphates that is rapidly and alarmingly altering our lakes, ponds, rivers, and oceans to a dangerous degree, threatening to reach a tipping point where aquatic life is unsustainable.

The culprit? A category of pesticide containing glyphosates, a source of phosphates that is threatening the waterways – and drinking water – of this country and world. And the number one source of that glyphosate is Roundup.

As more and more Roundup-resistant, genetically-modified grains are used by farmers, they are using more and more Roundup to kill off the weeds without affecting their crops.

So, as the dead zones increase in frequency and size, and toxic algal blooms impact our dwindling clean fresh water on this planet, be sure to thank the government agencies and agribusinesses who continue to encourage Roundup and GMO seeds.

And with the EPA itself a threatened species, who do you think is going to prevail, the citizens or the giant agribusiness?