Toxins and Harmful Algal Blooms Science Team

Science Center Objects

The team develops advanced methods to study factors driving algal toxin production, how and where wildlife or humans are exposed to toxins, and ecotoxicology.  That information is used to develop decision tools to understand if toxin exposure leads to adverse health effects in order to protect human and wildlife health.

Cyanobacterial blooms in 2016 on Lake Okeechobee, Florida

Cyanobacterial blooms, such as the one shown that occurred in 2016 on Lake Okeechobee, Florida, can release toxins. (Credit: Nicholas Aumen, US Geological Survey. Public domain.)

Algal blooms frequently occur in our Nation's water resources and can cause economic, ecologic, and human health concerns. Algal blooms often contain cyanobacteria and other microorganisms, which can produce natural toxins. Yet, the actual health threats posed to the public, pets, livestock, and wildlife by these toxins in water resources used for recreation and drinking water remain poorly understood. Consequently, in order to be protective from potential health risks, rapid decisions are often made by land managers, public utilities and others to limit access to water resources for recreation or drinking water. These decisions are often based largely on a perception of potential risk.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Toxins and Harmful Algal Blooms Research Team works with multiple stakeholders to quantify toxin exposure and effects, identify hazards and vulnerabilities, develop tools to quantify and forecast toxin occurrence and exposure, and estimate socioeconomic impacts. Knowledge gained is used to identify actual versus perceived health risks posed by natural toxins. The team’s approach for understanding health impacts of algal toxins on humans and wildlife is a sequential process where each step informs the next in the laboratory and in the field. This approach involves teams of USGS scientists working at field sites across the United States, and in collaboration with other scientists to address human and wildlife health concerns.


Current Science Activities

  • Toxin Exposure and Effects
    • Determining the effects of cyanotoxins in fish and birds, including, cyanotoxin induced endocrine disruption, sublethal effects, and immunomodulation effects
    • Determining bioaccessibility of cyanotoxins from ambient waters, finished drinking water, and raw and cooked fish in simulated mammalian digestive systems
    • Evaluating the potential exposure risk of cyanotoxins in tap waters in the United States
    • Dose-dependent animal toxicity studies for cyanotoxins and in relation to health advisory thresholds
    • Biomarkers and cellular response to acute and chronic cyanotoxin exposure and potential proactive response measures
    • Cyanotoxin and algal blooms related health impacts on reserved Federal lands and U.S. Trust species
    • Potential for cyanotoxin aerosolization and human health effects (collaboration with CDC)
  • Causes, Control, and Fate of Toxin Production
    • Evaluation of commercial personal drinking water purifiers for toxin removal
    • Understanding cyanotoxin production and control dynamics
    • The response of harmful algae to atmospheric stimuli and implication for ecosystem and human health
  • Advancing Methods and Sensors to Support Toxin Studies
    • Validation of a method for simultaneously measuring multiple classes of cyanotoxins and algal toxins in surface waters across the freshwater to marine continuum
    • Cyanobacteria Assessment Network (CyAN): Detection of cyanobacterial blooms and potential toxin production in lakes and reservoirs
    • Polyphasic identification of toxin producing cyanobacteria
    • Assessment of physical and chemical properties of cyanotoxins
  • Decision Support
    • Identification and quantitation of cyanotoxin socioeconomic effects