A Toxic Situation

July 1, 2015

About the author: John Keener is owner of Toledo Water Conditioning Inc. Keener can be reached at [email protected].


Last summer, the city of Toledo, Ohio, made headlines when a do-not-use order affecting 400,000 residents was issued due to microcystin contamination. Caused by a bloom of blue-green algae in Lake Erie, the contaminant forced people to turn to bottled water for all of their water needs. John Keener of Toledo Water Conditioning shared his experience with WQP Managing Editor Kate Cline.

Kate Cline: What is microcystin? How does it affect human health?

John Keener: Microcystin is an endotoxin that is emitted from cyanobacteria when the cell wall is ruptured. Cyanobacteria are a member of the phytoplankton family. They are sometimes called blue-green algae, but they are not actually an algae. 

The toxicity of microcystin is really quite incredible. [It] is four times more toxic than cobra venom, 50 times more toxic than strychnine and more toxic than sarin, the nerve gas that was used in the 1995 Tokyo subway terrorist attack.  

The acute health effects on humans are vomiting, diarrhea and skin rashes. The chronic effects can be liver cancer, kidney abnormalities, neurological diseases such as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Alzheimer’s disease, and death.

Cline: How did the do-not-drink order affect the Toledo community?

Keener: Early on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, every news station was posting emergency warnings of do not drink, do not boil and do not use the water in Toledo. This affected more than 400,000 people. Public officials warned people to avoid showering, stop doing their laundry, postpone watering their gardens, etc. The city mobilized in search of safe water.

There have been some university studies regarding treatment, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had some information as well. However, microcystin is not regulated by EPA. The only recommendations as far as drinking water standards are from the World Health Organization, which lists the maximum contaminant level at 1 ppb.  

Just as a reference, 1 ppb would be one drop of contamination in a 10,000-gal swimming pool. Toledo’s microcystin level was more than 3 ppb.

Cline: How did it affect Toledo Water Conditioning?  

Keener: My wife Mary and I arrived at the office about 7:30 a.m. on the day of the event we like to call “Aquageddon” and were selling water immediately. We called all of our employees, who were expecting a phone call by then. We called some friends to help as well. We had people standing in [a] line [that ran] out the door, out to the street and down the road to get our water.  

Everyone who came in had the same questions regarding the city water: How long will the situation last, is your water safe, will city tap water ever be safe again? I quickly wrote up a flyer with as much information as I could and added a little advertisement for our business on the back side.

We have regular bottled water routes that use 5-gal bottles, so I could only sell a limited number of those. I knew my existing customers would want a lot more water. Thus, I had to make a conscious decision to put existing loyal customers ahead of new customers. We decided to limit walk-in water purchases to 4 gal of water per person. I had several grocery and convenience store owners offer to buy me out of stock at a tidy profit. I said no.

Cline: How did Toledo Water Conditioning raise awareness during the crisis?

Keener: I called all the local television stations’ news directors and conducted several phone interviews on Saturday. The news was running constantly, preempting normal broadcasts. A few of the news stations visited us to discuss what reverse osmosis system is and how it can remove toxins. TV and talk radio were abuzz with news that Toledo Water Conditioning had water available and was only charging $0.35 a gallon (our normal price). I had to meet one of the news stations in my office at
4 a.m. Sunday morning for an extensive interview. We also gave away thousands of gallons of water to the community.  

Cline: What is your advice for other dealers faced with do not drink orders in their service areas?

Keener: My advice to any other dealers who may face these types of challenges is to actively make yourself available to the news media, give away as much water as you can, and do not think about any immediate profit you could gain from such an event. We continue to enjoy the benefits of the goodwill and good public relations that we shared with the community. Our drinking water products, point-of-use and point-of-entry sales continue to grow as people remember us helping the community during the water crisis. WQP

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