More People Are Getting Sick From Chesapeake Bay Bacteria, Study Says

Maryland and Virginia have reported an increase in illnesses such as skin and blood infections from Vibrio bacteria.
Maryland and Virginia have reported an increase in illnesses such as skin and blood infections from Vibrio bacteria. (By Janice Carr)
By Ben Nuckols
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, July 9, 2009

The polluted waters of the Chesapeake Bay are harboring bacteria that are posing an increasing risk to people, a bay watchdog group said Tuesday in a report that criticizes federal environmental regulators.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation notes increases in Virginia and Maryland in the number of infections from the saltwater bacteria known as Vibrio, some varieties of which can cause life-threatening skin and blood infections and intestinal illnesses.

The report faults the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to clean up the bay as required under the federal Clean Water Act.

"The thought that you can't swim in the Chesapeake Bay because you may contract a disease or a bacterial infection, that's outrageous, especially if the laws aren't being enforced," said William C. Baker, president of the foundation.

President Obama called the Chesapeake "a national treasure" in an executive order in May that put the federal government in charge of cleanup efforts that had been led by states.

Jeffrey Lape, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, did not dispute that the agency has fallen short of its cleanup goals.

"We're on clear record of acknowledging that much more needs to be done to restore the bay," Lape said. "I think we're trending in the right direction. We just still have some challenges to address."

The report also says that Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia issued 76 no-swimming advisories and beach closures last year because of unhealthy bacteria levels, typically after significant rainfall.

Health officials in Virginia reported 30 infections from Vibrio bacteria last year, up from 12 in 1999, the report says. Cases also rose in Maryland, but a change in reporting requirements might have contributed to the increase.

Rising water temperatures and nutrient pollution are fueling algae blooms that allow bacteria to thrive in the bay, scientists say in the report.

Watermen have long been aware of the dangers posed by bacteria, but in recent years, swimmers and casual boaters have also suffered serious infections, the report says.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation interviewed a boater from Newport News, Va., who was hospitalized last year after contracting a Vibrio infection in a small cut on his thumb. A retired printer was hospitalized in 2005 and "on the verge of death" after a cut on his leg became infected while swimming in Maryland's Severn River, the report says.

"The thought that it could happen to a grandfather or someone coming into casual contact, playing with their kids, was surprising to us," Baker said. "I think it's going to be surprising to a lot of people."

Lape said the bay is no less safe than it was a decade or two ago, although he said that the EPA and other agencies have made little progress in reducing pollution from stormwater. The foundation should be applauded for bringing concerns about water quality to the public's attention, he said.

"This report provides very good anecdotal examples of the serious concerns that can be caused by water quality," Lape said.

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