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Detection of microcystin and other cyanotoxins in lakes at Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, northern Michigan, 2012–13

December 5, 2017

Although cyanotoxins released during algal blooms have become an increasing concern in surface waters across the United States, the presence of cyanotoxins in northern Michigan lakes had not been evaluated in detail. The U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service (NPS) led a 2-year study (2012 and 2013) to determine the presence of microcystin and other algal toxins in several inland lakes at Isle Royale National Park (hereafter referred to as ISRO, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (hereafter referred to as PIRO), and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (hereafter referred to as SLBE). Samples also were collected at four sites in Lake Michigan within the SLBE. The two analytical techniques used in the study were enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) for microcystin, cylindrospermopsin, and saxitoxin; and liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS) for a larger suite of algal toxins. Neither cylindrospermopsin nor saxitoxin were detected in the 211 samples. Microcystin was detected in 31 percent of samples (65 of 211 samples) analyzed by the ELISA method, but no sample results exceeded the World Health Organization recreational health advisory standard for microcystin (10 micrograms per liter [µg/L]). However, about 10 percent of the samples (21 of 211 samples) that were collected from PIRO and SLBE and were analyzed by ELISA for microcystin had concentrations greater than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water 10-day health advisory of 0.3 µg/L for children preschool age and younger (less than 6-years old). One sample collected in 2012 from SLBE exceeded the EPA drinking water 10-day health advisory of 1.6 µg/L for school-age children through adults (6-years old and older). In 2012, the highest concentration of 2.7 µg/L was detected in Florence Lake within SLBE. Many visitors enjoy recreation in or on the water and camp in the backcountry at these national parks where the most common source of drinking water is filtered surface water.

Approximately 18 percent of the samples (39 of 211 samples) were analyzed by LC/MS/MS to confirm the ELISA results and to evaluate the samples for a larger suite of algal toxins. In general, the microcystin results between the ELISA and LC/MS/MS methods were similar; although, the ELISA results tended to be slightly higher than the summation of LC/MS/MS microcystin congeners. The slightly higher ELISA results might be because the ELISA microcystin method is reactive with the ADDA functional group common to all microcystins, and because not all microcystin congeners are included in the LC/MS/MS method. The LC/MS/MS method indicated that the congener microcystin-LR was the most frequently detected, followed by microcystin-WR and microcystin-YR.

Sixteen of the lakes included in this study also were monitored by the NPS for nutrients. Total phosphorus (TP) concentrations were, on average, highest at the ISRO lakes, whereas total nitrogen (TN) concentrations were highest at SLBE. The average annual TN:TP ratios for the 16 lakes within the national park and national lakeshores ranged from ratios of 20 to 89. Overall, results indicated a slight increase in percentage of microcystin detections with an increase in the TN:TP ratio (R-squared 0.269 and 0.340, respectively [2012 and 2013 combined dataset] derived from linear regression).

This study also indicated that even in the absence of visible algal blooms, microcystin may be present. Most microcystin concentrations did not exceed the EPA’s 10-day health advisory drinking-water benchmark. In general, these results provide a useful baseline with which to evaluate potential future changes in algal toxin concentrations.