Summit on Pfiesteria Six-state meeting: Shared efforts to combat toxic microorganism are essential.

September 24, 1997

LAST WEEK'S six-state summit in Annapolis marked a major step in recognizing the potential widespread hazard of the mysterious microbe known as Pfiesteria piscicida.

Both Maryland and Virginia officials, although they differ in responses to the problem, pledged to combat this toxic organism that is linked to fish kills and human ailments in a handful of tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.

Along with representatives of four other mid-Atlantic states, these two primary stewards of the bay committed to cooperation and further research into the mysteries of this tiny single-cell creature, whose recent virulence they term ''a serious threat'' to public health, the estuarine economy and the environment. Virginia anted up $2.3 million to study and detect the elusive Pfiesteria, and a laboratory to test for the microbe quickly. North Carolina, where researchers first identified the organism nine years ago, also announced plans for a $1 million lab dedicated to Pfiesteria research.

Maryland, citing potential human health problems, has closed three waterways to recreation and fishing after finding sick and dead fish with lesions apparently caused by Pfiesteria. A crash medical study of some 30 Marylanders claiming Pfiesteria-linked ailments found neurological problems to be the most prevalent, warranting the state's closure of rivers.

Meanwhile, Virginia has kept open its Rappahannock River despite finding high concentrations of sickened fish there. It calls the Maryland physician study inconclusive, and emphasizes there has been no massive fish kill or report of human illness in that river. (But Virginia did close its section of the Pocomoke River after Maryland acted.)

Virginia exhibits the same skepticism expressed earlier this year by Maryland officials, when they discounted reports of diseased fish and dismissed local physician findings of Pfiesteria-linked health problems as unreliable.

In the past month, Maryland has reacted more aggressively, with stepped-up water sampling and lab studies and health screenings. A high-powered commission, led by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, will recommend ways to fight future Pfiesteria outbreaks, which Gov. Parris N. Glendening warned could well occur when warm weather returns in the spring.

Regional and national attention is focused on this threat to fish and humans. A concentrated, multi-state, multi-agency crusade against this microbe is indeed warranted.

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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