Although it's been known for a long time that sewage and agricultural runoff cause water quality problems, new technology has allowed scientists for the first time to isolate and quantify the presence of microcystin, said lead author Diane Orihel.
"As lakes have higher and higher concentrations of nutrients, we see more and more (blue-green algae) and more and more microcystins," said Orihel, whose research was published Tuesday.
"We need to get serious about water quality in these lakes. This is now a human health concern across Canada."
Microcystins are potentially fatal to humans. As well, they are suspected of being carcinogenic at long-term, low exposure.
They are also associated with death and illness in wildlife.
The toxin is produced by some species of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. Blue-green algae is a common feature of nutrient-rich lakes such as the shallow, warm lakes on the prairies.
Those environments already tend to be naturally rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. In addition, they often receive large amounts of those chemicals in runoff from agricultural fertilizers and manure, as well as sewage from recreational properties.
Orihel's research found that when nitrogen exceeded phosphorus by less than a factor of 20 lakes tended to have high levels of microcystins.
Her survey found such conditions in 246 lakes across the country. Every province had lakes where microcystin levels were "of concern."
Several Alberta lakes between Edmonton and Calgary, where microcystin levels routinely exceeded 10 micrograms per litre, comprised one of the hot spots. Another was in northwestern Alberta and southern Manitoba.
Of 37 lakes in her survey where microcystin levels reached up to 10 micrograms, 19 were in Alberta and eight were in Manitoba.
Sturgeon Lake, Haig Lake and George Lake in Alberta all had high levels. Lakes with high levels in Manitoba included Killarney Lake, Rock Lake and Pelican Lake.
Proposed Canadian guidelines for recreational microcystin exposure — which includes swimming in the water or even inhaling droplets — is 20 micrograms per litre. Orihel's survey suggested nine per cent of the lakes surveyed exceeded that level.
Orihel said cottagers and boaters should pay close attention to blue-green algae warnings issued by provincial governments. When those levels are high, microcystins are also likely to be high.
Because Canada has no central agency to monitor cyanobacteria or microcystins, data in her survey was limited by the fact it was collected by different agencies, sometimes using slightly different methods. Orihel compiled her database from 3,474 separate records collected over 10 years.
More research is needed to nail down the links between algae, nutrients, human activity and microcystins, she said.
"We have a poor understanding of where and when these toxins will appear in our lakes.
"The next step would be to conduct large-scale experiments where we manipulate nitrogen-to-phosphorus ratios. I think that information is critical for developing nutrient management strategies."
One place where such work would be possible would be the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario, a unique open-air lab of 58 remote Ontario water bodies that allows scientists to conduct experiments on entire ecosystems. The future of that facility is in doubt after the federal announced last spring that it would cut the $2 million in funding it receives.
"There's really only one place in the world where you can do work like that and that's the Experimental Lakes Area," Orihel said.
Although she has been heavily involved in the attempt to save the program, Orihel denies her survey has been released in an attempt to pressure the government. She points out the study was accepted for publication well before news broke about the Tory funding decision.
She's urging landowners and agricultural producers to take responsibility for the water quality in their own lakes. Improving sewage treatment and restoring natural lakeside vegetation are two moves that would go a long way to reducing microcystin risk, Orihel suggested.
"They have a role to play in cleaning up their lakes."
Carrie Sancartier of Alberta Environment said the department is examining Orihel's research.
"Reports like this are of interest and they add to our body of knowledge," she said.
She said lakes in Alberta are closely studied for algae levels and both the Environment Department and Alberta Health Services monitor possible human impacts.