A state-appointed team of doctors will conduct an intensive health study of up to 170 people who work on the water in an effort to find how many Marylanders are being sickened by the toxic marine microorganism Pfiesteria.
Dr. David Oldach, a member of the state's medical team, said the five-year study will include watermen working Delmarva's coastal bays, the upper Chesapeake Bay and the western shore. But it will focus, he said, on people who make their living fishing and crabbing in the Tangier Sound region, which is fed by the three waterways closed last summer after a series of Pfiesteria-related fish kills.
Money for the effort is expected to come from $7 million that Congress gave the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study Pfiesteria's health effects along the East Coast. The first examinations are scheduled to begin next month.
Department of Natural Resources officials are gearing up for warmer weather and a potential return of the single-celled predator. They plan to collect water samples and conduct extensive studies of fish in the previously closed waterways -- the Pocomoke River, Kings Creek and Chicamacomico River.
They also hope to study at least five waterways considered at risk for Pfiesteria attacks: the Nanticoke River, the Wicomico River and the Big Annemessex River on the Chesapeake, as well as the St. Martins River and Trappe Creek on the Atlantic shore.
DNR officials plan to spend about $1 million on Pfiesteria-related monitoring programs, said Dr. Robert Magnien, chief of tidewater ecosystem assessment for the agency.
The state's medical team, consisting of doctors from the medical schools at the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University, was hastily recruited last summer to examine people claiming symptoms from exposure to Pfiesteria.
Although skeptical at first, scientists quickly discovered that 13 of the victims shared a striking pattern of symptoms, particularly severe learning and short-term memory problems.
By November, all but two of the victims were nearly recovered.
"Most people appear to have improved, and have improved substantially," said Oldach, who teaches at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine. "We can't rule out the possibility of long-term effects."
Oldach spoke at a meeting yesterday of state officials gathered to discuss how best to prepare for the potential reappearance of Pfiesteria in Maryland waters.
Work with watermen
Grant Lawson, 62, of Crisfield, an 11th-generation waterman, told the assembled scientists and bureaucrats that they should work more closely with people who make their living on the water.
When commercial fishermen last summer offered to help find and collect fish with lesions, Lawson said, state officials "completely didn't talk to 'em. You're the experts in the lab. But these boys are the experts in the river."
Fading effects disputed
He also challenged the assertion that, among its victims, the effects of Pfiesteria have largely faded.
Lawson's wife, Yvonne, 56, worked as a fish kill investigator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources at Kings Creek last summer. She was one of the people examined by the medical team and still has trouble with breathing, concentration and memory.
"She's damaged," Grant Lawson said.
Oldach declined to talk about Yvonne Lawson's case in detail.
"I hope that she continues to improve and expect that she will," he said.
Dr. JoAnn Burkholder of North Carolina State University, an authority on Pfiesteria, attended yesterday's meeting and praised the state for its preparations.
"I think it's an excellent plan," she said.
Pub Date: 2/20/98