Do Not Touch: Health Officials Warn Of Potentially Toxic Scum In Michigan Lake

algae on a lake
Photo credit Blue-green algae on a lake. (Getty)

(WWJ) Stay away, don't touch it, and definitely do not get it in your mouth. 

The Washtenaw County Health Department, in consultation with the state health department, is issuing a public health advisory for a suspected harmful algal bloom in Ford Lake in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

What you need to know: 

People and pets should avoid direct body contact with scums in the lake, water that is blue-green, or water that looks like it has a green sheen or spilled paint on its surface. People and pets should also avoid swallowing the lake water, as well. 

There are different types of naturally occurring algal blooms that may be seen on lakes and rivers, and most are not harmful, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. However, there are some that are made of cyanobacteria that have the ability to produce toxins, causing a harmful algal bloom (HAB). 

These toxins may affect the liver, nervous system and/or skin, officials say.

At Ford Lake, officials say a resident recently notified MDHHS of a suspected HAB when they saw an area of water that had a “spilled paint” look. Testing then confirmed microcystin toxin in the water, indicating the possibility of a HAB, but on a follow-up site visit, inspectors didn't find anything. 

Either way, health officials say the advisory was issued to alert the public to the possibility of a HAB on the lake. 

More tips, for your safety at this time:

  • You can swim in the water but stay away from water that has scums or mats, looks like spilled paint, or has colored streaks.
  • Keep children and pets away from algae in the water or on the shore.
  • Do not let pets or livestock drink the water or eat scum on the shore.
  • All fish should be caught and released. Ford Lake is under a Do Not Eat Fish Advisory.
  • Do not drink water from lakes, ponds, or rivers.
  • Rinse people and pets off after swimming.
  • When in doubt, keep people and pets out of the water.
  • Call you doctor or veterinarian if you or your pet get sick after going in the water.

People can still water ski, boat, and tube but it is advised that caution be taken in doing so in areas with visible algal scums. Breathing in water droplets with algae from the boat spray may cause nose and throat irritation. Swallowing large amounts of water containing cyanotoxins while swimming, wading, or playing in the water may cause flu-like symptoms, gastrointestinal illness, or neurotoxic symptoms. These may include abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, numbness, headaches, dizziness, or difficulty breathing. Swallowing large amounts of cyanotoxins can harm the liver or kidneys

What causes HABs to form?

Factors that can contribute to HABs include: sunlight; low-water or low-flow conditions; calm water; warmer temperatures; and excess nutrients (phosphorus or nitrogen). The primary sources of nutrient pollution are runoff of fertilizers, animal manure, sewage treatment plant discharges, storm water runoff, car and power plant emissions, and failing septic tanks.

What should I do if I see a HAB?
  • Do not let your children or pets play in HAB debris on the shore.
  • After swimming or wading in lake water, even where no HABs are visible, rinse off with fresh water as soon as possible.
  • Never swallow any lake or river water, whether you see HABs or not.
  • Do not let pets lick HAB material from their fur or eat HAB material.
  • Do not drink or cook with lake water.
  • See a doctor if you or your children might be ill from HAB toxins. If your pet appears ill, contact your veterinarian

Suspicious-looking algae can be reported to EGLE by calling the Environmental Assistance Center at 1-800-662-9278 or sending an e-mail to Learn more at this link.