6 states to study water toxins Mid-Atlantic officials to meet in Annapolis to chart response plan

'Concerted effort'

More relaxed attitude of Virginia may upset degree of cooperation

September 19, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Marcia Myers | Timothy B. Wheeler and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Officials from six mid-Atlantic states gathering in Annapolis today are expected to pledge cooperation in seeking to combat the toxic microorganism that Maryland officials suspect has sickened people and killed fish in three Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

But the extent of that cooperation remained in doubt on the eve Gov. Parris N. Glendening's regional summit on Pfiesteria, as Virginia and Maryland officials continued to differ over the health threat posed by the single-celled organism.

While Glendening's spokeswoman spoke yesterday of seeking "concerted effort" to curb outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida in coastal waters, Virginia Gov. George F. Allen released a statement stressing his interest in research that will help "prevent premature conclusions that may unnecessarily frighten our citizens."

Virginia health officials also insisted yesterday they have no intention of closing the Rappahannock River to fishing or swimming, despite finding menhaden with lesions and preliminary evidence of Pfiesteria-like organisms in the water. Maryland has closed portions of three bay tributaries after fish kills or after finding fish with lesions typical of those caused by Pfiesteria.

Scientists at Old Dominion University informed Virginia health officials Wednesday that they had tentatively identified Pfiesteria similar organisms in water samples taken last week in the Rappahannock. Up to 75 percent of the hundreds of fish caught then had lesions.

But Dr. Randolph L. Gordon, Virginia's health commissioner, said he was not alarmed by those preliminary findings, or by a medical study he received from Maryland the same day suggesting strong links between the microorganism and serious human health problems, notably confusion and memory loss.

"We're concerned about it, but I think we have a long way to go to say that exposure to the toxin causes these problems," Gordon said.

Maryland officials closed a 7-mile stretch of the lower Pocomoke River in Somerset County on Aug. 29, after receiving a preliminary report from medical experts suggesting that watermen and state workers exposed to fish kills on the river were suffering health problems.

Virginia closed its portion of the Pocomoke the same day.

Without waiting for evidence of Pfiesteria in water samples, Maryland this month closed portions of Kings Creek, a tributary of the Manokin River in Somerset, and the Chicamacomico River in Dorchester County after finding more sick and dying fish with lesions that are typical of those caused by Pfiesteria.

Maryland officials voiced alarm Wednesday over a medical study that indicated strong links between the microorganism and serious human health problems, but Virginians were upbeat.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University medical schools, finds a credible link between exposure to Pfiesteria and neurological problems, such as confusion and memory loss. However, it finds no consistent link between Pfiesteria and the lesions, burning skin and abdominal cramps that some people who came in contact with the water had reported.

"Even if there is a toxin, which we're a ways from establishing, at this point we're not ready to say that water which contains lesion fish will lead to these more serious neurological symptoms," Gordon said. "We're reassured that there were so many normal tests."

Gordon also complained about Maryland's refusal to release the test data on which the medical team based its conclusions.

"We need more information," he said. "To really get to the bottom of this problem, other scientists need to be able to examine their data."

Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, Maryland's health secretary, said patients involved in the study were promised confidentiality.

"I am not going to violate my pledge to them," he said yesterday. Representatives from the Maryland and Virginia health agencies are expected to meet soon to discuss that issue.

Despite Virginia's unwillingness to close waterways, Allen announced Wednesday that he would devote $2.3 million to study the organism and to improve methods for detecting it. Pfiesteria has proven elusive because it shifts among more than 20 different forms, four of which are known to emit toxins that can stun fish and disintegrate their flesh.

In Annapolis today, Governors Allen, Thomas R. Carper of

Delaware and Cecil H. Underwood of West Virginia are expected to join Glendening at the State House, along with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol M. Browner, to review what is known about Pfiesteria and its effects on fish and people.

North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. is in Europe on a trade mission but is sending his secretaries of health and natural resources, according to a spokesman. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge plans to remain in Harrisburg but has dispatched a deputy environment secretary to represent him.

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