Health Worries Over Bay Pollution

Sally Hornor of Operation Clearwater guides Deirdre Dunnell as she draws a sample from the Severn River at the Pines subdivision beach in Anne Arundel.
Sally Hornor of Operation Clearwater guides Deirdre Dunnell as she draws a sample from the Severn River at the Pines subdivision beach in Anne Arundel. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006

Dirty water and contaminated fish in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries pose a public health threat, but spotty monitoring and tourism industry worries can block the public from learning the full picture, health experts say.

Millions of people swim, boat and fish in the region's waterways every year with no ill effects. But the water is so dirty that public health officials warn people who swim in it to wash with soap afterward and to avoid entering the water with an open wound.

A new report being released today says more than 40 Maryland beaches, including several on the bay, violated public health standards at least a quarter of the times they were tested. The report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council -- which documented more than 20,000 days of ocean, bay and Great Lakes beach closures and advisories nationwide last year -- placed three of Maryland's bay beaches among its worst offenders. All three are on the Eastern Shore.

Maryland ranks among the 10 worst states for beaches that fail to meet national health standards, according to the report. Yet the state does not require that a contaminated beach be closed -- except after raw sewage spills of at least 10,000 gallons.

Virginia fared far better in the report, ranking among the top five for meeting federal standards. Still, the state tests mostly coastal beaches, not most rivers.

"It's 100 degrees outside. People should be able to go to the beach and swim and know that they won't get sick," said Nancy Stoner of the council's Clean Water Project. "There's a lot better information now than there ever was before. But what we're finding is that monitoring is detecting problems, but we're not doing anything about it."

In this coastal region, it seems easier to discover pollution's impact on sea grass than on people. No single agency is charged with finding and alerting the public to waterborne health hazards. Fish- and water-quality monitoring falls to a patchwork of government bodies, students and volunteers. Results are spread across Web sites in two states, making it difficult, especially for tourists, to fully gauge the risks.

In 2004, Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health worked with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to link pollution and its human health impact. The effort ran out of money before it got off the ground.

"We're not spending enough money and time figuring out the best ways to monitor the water we swim in and the fish we eat, and on a better means of informing and warning the public," said Polly Walker of the Johns Hopkins center involved in the project. "That's not to say things are terrible. But without a monitoring system in place, we won't know when they are."

The information that does reach the public often provokes objections from fishing and tourism interests. "Every story that gets written about the health of the bay hurts my industry," said Susan Zellers, director of the Marine Trades Association of Maryland, an industry lobbying group.

With out-of-state boaters pouring $154 million annually into Maryland, she said, "we're all about [saying], 'Everything's fine.' "

But not everything is fine. In September 2004, Jim Byers, a veteran kayaker from Bethesda, headed onto the Potomac after a big rain, eager for a challenging run through flood-stage waters. Two weeks later, Byers, 51, felt pain in his legs so severe that he dropped to his dining room floor.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company