The stage has been set for blue-green algae blooms to flourish in Chautauqua Lake as the summer season peaks and the water warms up.
The county Health Department is urging all residents to use caution when using the lake, especially where algae is present.
As a type of cyanobacteria that can form thick mats on the water surface resembling paint, the algae ranges in color from gray to various shades of yellow, green, blue or brown and can release toxins harmful to humans and animals if ingested.
"Swimming or recreating in areas where the water contains high levels of toxin can cause skin irritation and other symptoms to those with high sensitivity," said Christine Schuyler, director of the Department of Health and Human Services. "The real threat to public health from cyanobacteria is when people or pets drink or otherwise ingest water directly from a lake where a bloom is occurring."
Schuyler said a significant amount of sampling and testing for the most common toxins, such as microcystin, has been performed on Chautauqua and Findley lakes in the last three years.
"The only samples that had high toxin levels were from locations where significant blooms were present and the water was very unsightly," she said.
The Health Department has developed a response plan to help protect the public from health effects caused by blue-green algal blooms when they occur. This includes closely monitoring permitted beaches and public drinking water supplies, along with collecting a limited number of samples from lakes for submission to the New York State Department of Health laboratory.
In 2013, the biggest blooms on Chautauqua Lake arrived in July and August, while toxins were well above advisory guidelines in August and September.
While the algae blooms are very common statewide, about 10 percent have potentially harmful toxins, according to Gregory Boyer, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and director of the Great Lakes Research Consortium at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.
Boyer provided an informational session earlier this month to members of the Chautauqua Lake Association.
No one has ever died in the United States from ingesting blue-green algae, he said.
However, he added it is necessary to avoid ingesting it through recreational contact, and that animals are affected the most.
Boyer said if pets happen to swim through the algae and later clean their fur, they may become sick.
"If you see a bloom, remember four things," Boyer said. "Not all blooms are toxic, don't drink the water, don't let children ingest it and hose your dog off with clean water should the need arise."
For more information about blue-green algae, visit the Health Department website at www.co.chautauqua.ny.us/243/Environmental-Health.
The website also contains information about bathing beach closures for public beaches in Chautauqua County.