Communicating Cyanotoxin Risk with the Public
A public water system must be prepared to communicate to their customers about potentially hazardous conditions that could be present. This could be due to a pipe break that may have allowed contaminants to enter the distribution system or a finished water sample that tested positive for E coli (fecal) contamination. There are normally straightforward triggers to know when a public notice needs to be released. However, cyanotoxins are currently an unregulated contaminant. What will you do if a cyanobacteria bloom occurs in your source water or if there is a reason to suspect toxin may be present in the source water? For example, if cattle that are watered from this source become ill or a park near your intake is associated with multiple suspicious dog deaths.
Planning for these types of events will be key to delivering a clear message to your customers as discussed in previous newsletters. EPA has developed the “Drinking Water Cyanotoxin Risk Communication Toolbox” to help public drinking water systems send out messages to the public regarding harmful algal blooms and drinking water. These include a variety of templates for advisories, press releases, and social media. There are also fact sheets and downloadable graphics.
Access these graphics on EPA's Drinking Water Cyanotoxin Risk Communication Toolbox - Graphics page.
As seen in past cyanotoxin events that occurred in Toledo, Ohio, and Salem, Oregon, the public needs to be able to trust their drinking water utilities that they will provide easy-to-understand, timely, and transparent communications. Even if there is a level of uncertainty, such as when waiting on test results, it is best to be straightforward with the public, so they are aware that you are taking action to ensure they are protected. Frequent updates, such as daily progress reports on a website, can go a long way to reassure people.
Have a designated and back-up contact person to get the messages out and handle any requests for information that may come in from the public or press. These people should not be the primary operators. The operators will be busy monitoring and maintaining the treatment systems in the event of a harmful algal bloom. It is strongly recommended that lists are kept for key contacts, like city/county officials, media, government agencies and non-profits involved with drinking or surface water safety.