Israeli scientists turn the tide against toxic water bacteria
BlueGreen Technologies is battling the cyanobacteria that killed 300 elephants and threatens to contaminate half the world’s freshwater lakes
An Israeli startup has developed a new weapon to fight the spread of a killer bacteria that threatens to turn lakes and oceans toxic.
Authorities in Florida called in BlueGreen Water Technologies after two large lakes showed signs of infestation by algal blooms that grow from cyanobacteria and have contaminated bodies of water across the globe. The company has successfully treated similar outbreaks as far away as China, Russia and South Africa.
“We pride ourselves,” said the company’s chief technology officer Moshe Harel, “in taking care of the world’s most precious resource: water.”
Cyanobacteria are present in most lakes and oceans, but a buildup of nutrients from fertilizers and pollution, together with rising temperatures, can accelerate their growth into harmful algal blooms that starve the water of oxygen and turn it toxic. The “alarming increase” is “threatening sustainability of lakes and reservoirs worldwide,” according to researchers in China.
Last spring, slimy blue-green algae began appeared one morning in Lake Minneola near Orlando, Florida. Even when it seemed to die off, the pungent foam kept away many of the swimmers and boaters who usually flock to its shores.
Florida is not alone. The toxic algal blooms that threatened its waters affect half of the world’s freshwater lakes and millions of square miles of ocean, causing more than $250 billion in damage to the economy, environment and people’s health.
The blooms, which grow rapidly across the water’s surface, contain toxins that can kill fish, threaten the surrounding environment, and render the water and everything in it harmful to eat or drink. Earlier this year, more than 300 elephants mysteriously died in Botswana. Scientists discovered that the elephants had poisoned themselves with cyanobacteria by drinking water from a lake infested with the same blue-green algae.
In November, the local water authority in Florida called in BlueGreen Water Technologies, an Israeli startup that has developed a new and, it believes, more effective method of tackling the growing problem.
“We look forward to seeing results from this innovative project as we work to discover new remedies to our water quality challenges,” said Dr. Ann Shortelle, executive director of St. Johns River Water Management District, which oversees Lake Minneola.
Now BlueGreen is monitoring the lake to prevent a return of the problem. The project is the company’s second in the Sunshine State after Gov. Ron DeSantis saw a demonstration of BlueGreen’s technology during a 2019 visit to Israel.
In October, BlueGreen responded to an emergency call from Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection Agency to assist in preventing a potential toxic algae spill from Lake Okeechobee into nearby waterways. “Harmful algal blooms have a debilitating effect on our ecosystems and our communities,” said DeSantis, who set up a task force in 2019 to address the problem. “That is why, for the first time, I made it a priority to secure dedicated funding to deploy innovative technology to mitigate blue-green algae blooms.”
The increasing global blight is likely due to climate change and pollution, according to a study in the journal Nature. Hundreds of cyanobacteria outbreaks around the world are recorded each year by UNESCO’s Harmful Algal Bloom Programme.
“It’s a big problem,” said Nima Pahlevan, a NASA scientist and one of the authors of the study. “It’s not just North America and the U.S. This trend is occurring widely across the globe.”
In the developing world, the blooms are threatening the survival of entire communities that need water for drinking, food, irrigation and recreation.
China has spent billions of dollars upgrading its water infrastructure as its rivers and lakes become infested by algal blooms accelerated by pollution and climate change. It was 12 years since visitors had been able to see clear water in Nanhu Lake in China’s Hunan province, venue of the annual International Dragon Boat Festival. Recent summers were accompanied by an unbearable stench of rotting plants and organisms killed by the algal blooms that cover the lake.
In June, 48 hours after the first BlueGreen treatment, the waters were clear for the first time in more than a decade. More than 85 percent of China’s 920 freshwater lakes are affected by algae pollution, scientists estimate.
“Governments around the world have pumped in hundreds of millions of dollars and enacted laws in a bid to clean up lakes affected by the toxic algae sludge. But it has not been resolved due to both rising global temperatures and also difficulty in regulation and monitoring,” according to China’s CGTN.
Lake Chippewa in Ohio, long plagued by toxic algae, was declared safe again for boating and swimming in 2019 after a 25-minute treatment with Lake Guard. Earlier this year, the company successfully cleared algal blooms in South Africa’s Roodeplaat Dam Reservoir, an important source of drinking water and a local recreational attraction that had become unusable.
In the United States, algal blooms cause economic losses of about $4 billion each year. Governments, water utility companies and scientists have been struggling to find effective ways to prevent algal blooms, especially in large bodies of water, without causing further chemical pollution.
BlueGreen uses hydrogen peroxide and copper sulfate — market-approved algaecides — and reformulates them into tiny particles coated in biodegradable material to create a floating, time-release “silver bullet” that chases its target by mimicking the movement of the algae on the surface of the water, explained BlueGreen’s co-founder and CEO Eyal Harel. The active ingredients directly target the bad algae, reducing the amount of treatment material, the cost, and any harmful impact on the water’s delicate ecosystem.
Lake Guard can be deployed by hand from the shore, a moving boat, or the air over large bodies of water. The treatment takes effect within hours.
“The treatment activates a biological chain reaction within the target species, causing them to naturally undergo a collective suicide,” Harel explained. “The effect is swift and safe, rehabilitating the aquatic ecosystem, allowing non-toxic species to thrive in the vacant ecological niche and serve their natural role as buffers against future resurgence of blue-green algae.”
Lake Guard can also be deployed in very small amounts to prevent new blooms from taking hold. The company has also developed Lake Guard View — a satellite-based remote-sensing technology that can quickly detect and analyze algal outbreaks in near-real time anywhere in the world.
“This is absolutely critical because it enables us to not only respond to an ongoing bloom, but to actually prevent them because we are able to identify hot spots where a bloom is starting to form, and treat it at an earlier stage,” Harel said.
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