Carol Bitting has long been a staunch champion for our Buffalo National River, identified last year by readers of USA Today as the state's greatest attraction.
She is one of many who have dedicated themselves to protecting the country's first national river that now is endangered and disease-impaired. Her concerns echo tens of thousands of others across our state.
Bitting, along with equally devoted geoscientist and emeritus professor John Van Brahana, recently forwarded two cautionary August news releases from our state Department of Health that should have all of us upset.
She wrote: "If you haven't seen these letters you will find them of interest and the readers should know that algae waters should be avoided for contact and consuming. I have known several people that have had reactions to being in contact with the waters in the Buffalo this summer. Three people on one trip had reactions and of those, all had skin rashes and fever and two developed gastrointestinal issues."
Contamination from Recreational Water Illness (RWI) has become a deadly serious matter within this sacred river, exactly as hydrologists and geoscientists (as opposed to any alleged "raving environmentalists") have been warning for five years. These illnesses are caused when bacteria in contaminated water find a home inside people and other animals.
Health Department officials urged anyone in the Buffalo or its tributary Big Creek not to swallow water or swim in algae blooms (triggered by animal fertilizer runoff). They also warned against entering water with bad smells, discoloration, foam, scum or algae mats (good luck avoiding those on our lower Buffalo today) or signs of dead fish or marine life.
"Water quality can change quickly," the officials wrote. "In general, there is a higher risk of getting sick after a rainfall event or in cloudy water," warning that not all contaminants can be see by the naked eye.
"Not all algae are harmful," they continued, "but some algae produce toxins that can make people and animals sick. It is not possible to tell if algae are producing toxins just by looking at the water. The size of the bloom is not related to the amount of toxins that could be present. Children and pets are at the greatest risk from swimming or drinking water when algae are present."
They also emphasized people or animals should never consume algae-infested water, even if it's been filtered, as personal filter equipment and treatment options don't eliminate the risks. It's also a bad idea to cook using this water. Symptoms include throwing up and diarrhea. Anyone who believes they have an RWI should contact the Department of Health Communicable Disease Nurses at (501) 537-8969.
As for the well-being of dogs, they earned their very own press release addressed to veterinarians. And theirs was focused squarely on the national river.
"Harmful algal blooms ... from the blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) may be intermittently present in parts of the Buffalo River National Park, specifically the lower river region," it says. These algae can produce toxins that affect people and animals that swim in and drink from these waters. There are several sections of the river where people recreate with their dogs.
Though the Health Department has received only a few reports of human illnesses possibly associated with the blooms, officials also felt it wise to inform veterinarians of the current situation and provide additional resources should they encounter symptoms, especially in dogs.
Indications of cyanobacterial toxin poisoning depend on the type of toxin (hepatotoxin, neurotoxin, or dermatoxin), its concentration, the amount consumed, the size of the animal and the exposure route, according to the Health Department. Left untreated, cyanobacterial toxin poisoning can be fatal in animals. Prompt veterinary care is critical for pets showing hepatic or neurologic symptoms, and there are no antidotes to these toxins.
Ingesting large amounts of such toxins can result in serious illness and the need for emergency care. Common signs of hepatotoxin poisoning include throwing up, diarrhea, anorexia, jaundice, abdominal tenderness, and dark urine, and death from liver failure can occur within days.
Neurotoxins, the release said, cause excessive drooling, disorientation, seizures, and respiratory failure, and can lead to death within minutes to hours after exposure from respiratory paralysis. Cyanobacteria may also produce dermatoxins which result in rash, hives, or an allergic reaction.
These symptoms sure sound identical to health problems suffered by the Buffalo River enthusiasts Bitting mentioned at the top of this column.
But hey, don't worry, be happy, fellow Arkansans. After all, our politically appointed Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee and the tax-funded Big Creek Research and Extension Team are diligently at work (watching this unfold) to ensure purity on our behalf.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (cough) doesn't care to pin down the source of this ever-deepening threat to the health of our Buffalo because, well, then they'd have to deal with it.
Quite a dangerous and wholly unnecessary shameful mess we've allowed to be foisted upon Arkansans and our precious jewel of a river, don't you think?
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at [email protected]
Editorial on 09/16/2018