Williston filmmakers explore link between toxic algae blooms and the disease of ALS

Lake Champlain as seen from the Colchester Causeway.File photo by Jason Starr

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Two Williston filmmakers are shining light on a water quality/public health hypothesis that, if verified, would increase the urgency around stemming the tide of phosphorous polluting Vermont water bodies.

Jim Heltz of Green Mountain Video and his daughter, Jackie, released “Lake Effect” this year. The film was shown last week for members of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife at the Statehouse and released for viewing on Vermont Community Access Media’s website ( An airing on Vermont and New Hampshire public television is planned for this summer.

The documentary explores research from Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Dr. Elijah Stommel into an apparent connection between blue-green algae blooms that are fed by excess phosphorous in lakes and the degenerative disease, ALS. The Heltz family has an intimate connection with the disease; three family members have died after battling it.

Jackie Heltz’s aunt was diagnosed with ALS in 2016 and died last year. She had lived on Lake Carmi full time for years. The lake, located in northernmost Vermont, is among the hardest hit in the state with summer algae blooms.

“My starting point was thinking more about (ALS) patients and what it’s like to go through this experience, but after being introduced to Dr. Stommel and learning more about what is happening in Vermont’s waters, it was this web that unfolded,” said Heltz, a 2004 Champlain Valley Union High School graduate who produced the film as part of her pursuit of a master’s degree in media studies. “It didn’t start from the perspective of the health of water. It started from the perspective of the health of people, but they are really intertwined.”

Observer courtesy photo
Jackie and Jim Heltz of Williston on site filming for the documentary, ‘Lake Effect.

During an annual fundraising event for the ALS Association of Northern New England, Heltz learned about Stommel’s work of mapping the locations of people in Vermont and New Hampshire diagnosed with ALS. The maps reveal clusters of ALS diagnoses around lakes affected by algae blooms.

The question remains, is there a causal relationship between the disease and the toxins found in blue-green algae, and how far from the lakeshore can the toxins travel? Stommel is continuing his research into these questions.

“If it turns out (to be true), then we need to take the whole issue much more seriously and not only monitor water bodies but clean up water bodies,” Stommel says in the film.

Algae blooms are already known to cause skin irritation and short-term illness if affected water is swallowed. When blooms occur, officials post no-swimming signs, effectively closing beaches until water clears. The impact on tourism, lakefront home values and general citizen recreation and enjoyment has already spurred action in the legislature (see related story, page 1)

But concensus remains elusive about how to enforce new agricultural requirements designed to reduce polluted runoff from farms and how to fund long-term stormwater and wastewater upgrades

“It’s easy to say ‘I’m in’ when you are talking in generalities,” Rep. Jim McCullough of Williston says in the film. “But when you start talking about things that affect people’s pocketbooks or their right to do (what) they believe is inherent to life itself, then those details start to get difficult.”

Observer courtesy photos
Members of the Heltz family from Williston, from left, Patrick, Jim and Grace, stand at the Statehouse after a showing of their film, ‘Lake Effect.’

Heltz said she hopes the film “nudges policy” toward cleaner water.

“We have to have clean water,” her father, Jim, said. He was at Lake Carmi during a particularly noxious algae bloom while filming for the documentary. The experience stunned him.

“The colors are so unnatural. It looks like paint, and the stench is horrible,” he said. “It gets in the air, it gets in your nose and eyes and lungs … The ALS connection makes it horrible, but even without that it’s really bad.”

“The lakes are at a saturation point,” he continued. “They can only take so much before problems start showing.”