I’ve been thinking a lot about water this week. Kind of a surprise, really, since I usually think a lot about wine. Call it my out-of-the-box moment.
My parents live in northern Ohio, near Toledo. Earlier this week, the Toledo area was under a water ban (don’t drink, bathe or boil) because of a Lake Erie algae bloom containing dangerous levels of microcystin, a toxin released by cyanobacteria, which is a fancy science word for blue-green algae. Microcystin isn’t very nice. If you swim in it, you’re in for an itchy rash, hives and blisters. If you swallow the stuff, it can cause a whole range of nasty gastrointestinal issues, along with potential liver and kidney damage. Oh, and it’s been known to kill pets and livestock.
So when the Lake Erie science guys issue a CAPSLOCK warning that says, “DON’T DRINK THE WATER!” . . . Copy that.
Algae blooms aren’t a new thing for Lake Erie — they happen almost every summer. Some blooms are more toxic than others. Lake Erie is more susceptible to the algae blooms because it’s a shallow lake (only around 24 feet deep near Toledo), and warms quickly. Toxic algae loves shallow, warm lakes. The algae blooms can be traced back to phosphorous run-off from fertilizer and animal waste. Climate change and a couple species of invasive mussels are also getting a share of the blame. Unfortunately, this isn’t Lake Erie’s first time at the Algae Bloom Rodeo, and it won’t be their last.
Lake Erie has never had a great reputation. For years, people have whispered it’s a dead, dirty lake. I’ve heard the word sewer tossed around, too. Lake Erie rebounded a bit over the last couple of decades, but still wrestles with that reputation. When I was a kid, I swam in Lake Erie almost every summer, an activity I now realize is about the same as taking a dip in a petri dish. Back then, there were none of these handy public advisory signs posted on the beaches. Honestly, it’s a wonder I haven’t sprouted a third ear.
My mom said it was impossible to to buy bottled water in northern Ohio this past weekend — the store shelves were (and still are) bare. (This is the part where the Doomsday Preppers start to look like geniuses). And you can’t boil water contaminated with microcystin. Well, you can, but boiling only concentrates the toxins and increases your chances of going twelve rounds with Lake Erie Dysentery.
So what did my folks do in the face of this public health crisis? They drank wine!
My parents have a wine cellar capable of sustaining them through any algae bloom Lake Erie can throw at them. Which brings me (finally) to this week’s words:
These words are frequently attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but as such they’re almost assuredly a misquote. Either that, or Benjamin Franklin was an oracle. The word Bacterium wasn’t introduced until 1828, and the word Bacteria wasn’t used as a scientific term until 1838. Benjamin Franklin died in 1790. I’ve also seen the words attributed to David Auerbach (no idea which one) and someone named “Old German Saying”.
I’ve even seen these words as an addendum to Pliny’s very famous quote, “In wine there is truth.” It makes sense. The ancient Greeks & Romans knew there were baddies in the water, so they drank a ton of wine instead. And whatever water they did drink, they mixed with wine, thinking the wine would somehow make the water less poisonous. But they still wouldn’t have used the word bacteria.
Regardless of the source, the next time Lake Erie blooms with toxic algae, I’m comforted in the knowledge that my parents have plenty of wisdom and strength to drink while they wait for the all clear sign.
P.S. On Monday, officials lifted the water ban after deciding toxin levels in Lake Erie had returned to “acceptable levels”. This means the water probably doesn’t contain enough toxin to kill your poodle.