Report: Swimming in the bay is risky

Foundation files first report on human dangers in waters

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Published 07/07/09

Capital file photo. The nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation has released its first report looking at the bay's threats to human health.

If you hadn't thought twice about dipping your toes in the cool waters of a local creek or the Chesapeake Bay, a new report might make you think again.

The nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation has released its first report looking at the bay's threats to human health.

And it's not pretty: bacteria that can give you an upset stomach, pathogens that cause scary infections, mercury that affects brain function.

While the worst human health problems are thankfully still rare, bay foundation leaders wanted to make clear that pollution in the bay can affect people just as much as it hurts fish, crabs and oysters.

"What we're trying to do is to make it very clear to our elected officials and to the environmental agencies that they cannot continue to ignore the clean-water laws and expect the bay to get better, that there's a very direct connection to the economy, to human health and certainly to the abundance of life in the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers," said foundation President Will Baker.

The bay foundation planned to unveil the report, "Bad Water 2009: The Impact on Human Health in the Chesapeake Bay Region," during a news conference in the Annapolis community of Bay Ridge this morning featuring a Crownsville man who suffered a dangerous waterborne infection.

Bernie Voith is one of the case studies highlighted in the report. In 2005, Voith went swimming in Plum Creek on the Severn River when bacteria levels in the water had spiked, though he didn't know it.

A cut on his leg became severely infected, landing him in the hospital for two weeks and leading to months of treatment.

Read the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's full report

Other threats outlined in the report include:

Vibrio: A class of bacteria that thrives in warm, nutrient-rich waters. Various species can cause skin and blood infections, diarrhea and other sicknesses. Reported cases are on the rise in Maryland and Virginia.

Algae and cyanobacteria: Warm, nutrient-rich water spurs harmful algae and ainfections like the one Voith suffered.

Mercury: Neurotoxin builds up in fish tissue after falling into the water from air pollution.

Drinking water: Nitrates from fertilizers and other sources can contaminate well water.

And many of the threats are caused or worsened by man's polluting of the Chesapeake Bay with nutrients, the report charges. Global warming also might be heating the waters, causing some pathogens to thrive.

Despite the concerns, Baker said he still swims in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers - though he's more careful about it.

"I've been swimming in the bay all my life," Baker said. "But in the last year or two, I have been more concerned about swimming in the warm months - July, August, early September - after a heavy rain."

The report doesn't pull any punches in describing nasty infections and dangerous pathogens. And it calls on the government to do a better job clamping down on pollution.

Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, which oversees state and local testing of water safety, acknowledged there are serious human health concerns in the bay. And she said state and federal officials are working to improve water testing and notification, as well as to reduce pollution.

Stoltzfus said the message to be careful when swimming bears repeating.

"People should go to the beach armed with the facts," she said.

She noted that beach closures due to high bacteria counts have declined in the past few years.

"Right now, it's pretty safe," Stoltzfus said. "A lot of the illnesses they mentioned are really thankfully rare, but they need to be taken seriously."

She, too, said she swims in the bay, but wouldn't go in the water with an open sore or after a rainfall.

Stoltzfus said the foundation report was lacking in what individuals can do to lessen the problem: clean up pet waste, properly dispose of diapers at the beach, use marina pump-out stations and replace failing septic systems.

Swimmers and boaters also should check bacteria counts in waterways. In Anne Arundel, testing is done by the county Health Department and also by Anne Arundel Community College's Operation Clearwater.

"Everybody has a part in this," Stoltzfus said.

Read the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's "Bad Water" report at www.cbf.org. For more information about beach safety, visit www.marylandhealthybeaches.com or www.aahealth.org.

(Revised June 2009)