EPA Awards UVM $598K to Explore Links Among Algal Blooms, Human Health, Community Action
- By Shari Halik
The University of Vermont has received a $598,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate links between harmful algal blooms and human well-being and to explore how a community along Lake Champlain works to take action based on scientific information about those links. In lakes and ponds worldwide, cyanobacteria blooms, also known as “blue-green algae,” threaten water quality, ecosystem health and human well-being.
“Science has demonstrated multiple links between cyanobacteria blooms and human health and well-being,” said lead principal investigator Rachelle Gould of UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “This project explores links of emerging concern and then investigates how the community processes that information.”
The three-year project combines natural and social sciences to study both the blooms’ impacts and the community responses to data about those impacts. A team of interdisciplinary researchers will investigate how algal toxins may travel in fish tissue and as aerosols, and how the blooms affect nonmaterial aspects of well-being such as connection to place. The team will then analyze how communities process scientific information about these links to human well-being and how people feel empowered or disempowered to affect change.
“In many communities, awareness of these concerns has not readily transformed into policy and behavior change that could reduce bloom impacts,” said Gould, who specializes in research investigating relationships between ecosystems and human well-being, and in environmental learning. “There is, of course, a complex suite of reasons that information and concern don’t translate to action," she said. "To help communities develop preventative or adaptive measures, one important step is to explore how people process complex information and determine how to make change. Our community partners on the project are critical to helping us understand that.”
Gould and collaborator Brendan Fisher, of the Rubenstein School and the Gund Institute for Environment, will engage communities in and around the city and town of St. Albans, Vermont, located along the northern shore of Lake Champlain. St. Albans Bay is a hotspot for cyanobacteria blooms.
Partnership with local nonprofit organizations is a crucial component of the project. Project partners include Franklin Grand Isle Community Action and Lake Champlain International.
“Recognizing that households with limited resources are often impacted disproportionally by adverse environmental conditions, this study will better equip our agency to anticipate the future needs of low income households in the affected areas and help them strategize about effective remedies,” said Robert Ostermeyer, director of the Franklin Grand Isle Community Action program. This program of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity helps to address issues of economic, social and racial justice for residents of northern Lake Champlain communities.
Low income households can be disproportionately impacted by the transfer of algal toxins to fish tissue used for human consumption. Jason Stockwell, director of the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory on Burlington’s lakeshore and co- principal investigator on the grant, will lead efforts to understand the impacts of algal toxins in the tissues of fish.
“We have very little information about how many and how much cyanobacteria toxins can accumulate in fish,” said Stockwell. “We will be evaluating a long list of potential toxins, including neurotoxins, that are typically not assessed in fish tissues.”
“I congratulate Dr. Gould and Dr. Stockwell and their team for taking on such an important, but complicated, set of questions,” said Vermont U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy who strongly supported this grant award from the EPA. “I am proud that the EPA selected this project, based at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School, to help us learn more about how water pollution and algae blooms may affect our health and our communities.”
Other collaborators on the grant include Jana Kraft in the UVM Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences; Elijah Stommel at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth; Todd Miller at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Zilber School of Public Health; and James Ehlers of Lake Champlain International. Rubenstein School Ph.D. students Diana Hackenburg and Natalie Flores will conduct their dissertation research on aspects of the project.
The UVM grant was one of four grants funded, and part of more than $2 million awarded, by the EPA in October 2017 in the research area of Integrating Human Health and Well-Being with Ecosystem Services. The grant comes through the EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program administered by the EPA Office of Research and Development’s National Center for Environmental Research. The research area supports collaborative, community-based research to improve people’s understanding of how ecosystems support human health and well-being and to better inform community decision-making and management practices.