State's closing of rivers justified, medical team says Pfiesteria poses a serious threat to humans, report shows

September 18, 1997|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Douglas M. Birch, Dan Fesperman, Timothy B. Wheeler and D. Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.

A team of top physicians said yesterday that a toxic microorganism blamed for killing thousands of fish in Eastern Shore waters appears to be causing serious human health problems that justify the state's closure of three waterways.

All three Chesapeake Bay tributaries remain closed indefinitely to fishing, crabbing and recreation as a public health precaution taken by state officials.

"This report underscores and supports their activities" said Dr. J. Glenn Morris of the University of Maryland, head of the medical team investigating the link to toxins produced by Pfiesteria piscicida.

In a report to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the six-member team of doctors said its research showed that the most serious and consistent problems were neurological.

"I can't impress how profound, how important and how much of a concern this kind of a finding is," said Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, state health secretary.

The research also showed that exposure to water where there are major fish kills "does not appear to be an absolute requirement." One person showed symptoms after exposure to waters where fish with lesions were observed, even though it is not clear whether Pfiesteria caused the lesions.

Doctors said that unless people have regular, direct contact with waters where Pfiesteria is suspected, they appear to be at low risk of contracting illness. They said a person crossing contaminated water by boat would likely be at low risk of contracting Pfiesteria-related symptoms.

The discovery of the microbe in Maryland waters led to the closure of a 7-mile section of the Lower Pocomoke River last month. Its suspected presence in nearby Kings Creek in Somerset County and the Chicamacomico River in Dorchester County led to closures in the past week.

Virginia closed its portion of the Pocomoke last month based on Maryland's action. But Suzanne Jenkins, acting state epidemiologist, told the Chesapeake Bay Commission last week that Virginia has not closed the Rappahannock despite finding menhaden with lesions because there have been no fish kills or reports of humans affected.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the report showed he made the right decision when he closed sections of the three waterways.

"Protection of the public health must remain our top priority," he said. "We must continue to do whatever is necessary to ensure that anyone who lives, works or plays on these affected waterways is protected from any potential Pfiesteria-related exposure."

Glendening added that the state is working to identify the cause of the outbreaks, and predicted that a governors summit to be held tomorrow and his newly formed "blue ribbon" commission would "shed new light on this organism and what needs to be done to contain its toxic outbreaks this year as well as in the future."

He reiterated that "Maryland seafood remains safe."

Doctors said yesterday that there is no evidence to suggest that people could become ill by eating seafood.

Morris said it is critical that the studies continue. The team has received positive responses to requests for additional funds to continue its work, although no money has been approved, several members said.

An official with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences said the agency has tentatively committed several hundred thousand dollars for the doctors to continue their research.

The medical team has examined 29 people, including one yesterday, who suspect that Pfiesteria might be responsible for ailments ranging from rashes and lesions to memory loss. They also examined a control group of eight watermen.

Two more people reported health problems this week and are to be examined.

In their report, doctors said that 11 people exposed to the Pocomoke River when fish with Pfiesteria-like lesions were present showed symptoms characterized by chronic difficulties with learning and memory.

Some patients described driving toward a destination and forgetting where they were going, and mailing packages, then forgetting they had done it. Others were unable to recall numbers with more than five digits.

"As a team, we were struck by the consistency of these complaints in a group of otherwise vigorous individuals," the doctors wrote.

"We feel that it provides an accurate picture of the most severe end of the spectrum of human health effects" associated with water where Pfiesteria and similar microorganisms are present.

The symptoms appeared to be most severe when the person had long-term, extensive exposure to water and fish with lesions, according to the report.

Reacting to the report, Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he feared that the public would become unnecessarily alarmed. "It's isolated in small areas ZTC compared to the vastness of the bay," he said. "It's a very serious thing in these [smaller] areas, but it's nothing to be alarmed about. As far as the main stem of the rivers or the sounds or the bay, they're OK."

Mike Shultz, spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the report a "clarion call" for strong action to stop pollution of the bay.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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