Pfiesteria symptoms suspected

3 people reportedly have shown signs of possible exposure

No evidence of fish illness

State urges residents to be cautious in using part of Shore creek

August 19, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

State authorities urged caution in using an Eastern Shore creek yesterday because of reports that three people developed possible symptoms of exposure to toxic Pfiesteria after contact with its waters.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's press office said Natural Resources Police will patrol and warn people along a 2 1/2-mile stretch of Back Creek, a tributary of the Manokin River in Somerset County.

The state has not closed the creek to commercial or recreational use.

John Surrick, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said state health officials are investigating three cases in which individuals reported skin irritations and flu-like illness -- symptoms that have been associated with Pfiesteria.

If confirmed to be linked to Pfiesteria piscicida, the three cases would be the first in Maryland since the 1997 outbreak that made the one-celled organism a familiar name throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.

State officials yesterday reported no evidence of fish kills or widespread fish lesions such as the ones that accompanied the 1997 outbreak, which affected at least 13 people and prompted the closing of three Maryland waterways.

Reports linking Pfiesteria exposure to illness in people created fears that chilled Chesapeake Bay tourism and seafood sales two years ago. The outbreaks, and a scientific consensus that manure runoff from farms could be a contributing factor, resulted in the passage of sweeping water-quality legislation last year.

In a written statement, Glendening played down yesterday's announcement, saying the presence of Pfiesteria toxins in the creek has not been confirmed.

"There have been no indications that this occurrence extends beyond this very small, remote, localized area," the governor said.

Surrick said the state acted after scientific tests detected the presence of the organism -- though not necessarily in its toxic form -- in water samples taken from the creek last week.

He said the state began taking a close look at the waterway last week after hearing that a person who used the creek Aug. 9 had developed suspicious symptoms. Surrick said the state later learned about two other cases in which people reported reactions to contact with the water.

The spokesman said samples of fish in the creek turned up no indications of sickness.

"Our fish health seems to be quite good this summer," he said.

According to Surrick, the state acted after two separate laboratories found evidence of Pfiesteria in the water.

He said the state received results yesterday from Dr. JoAnn Burkholder's laboratory in North Carolina, showing that three water samples tested positive for the presence of Pfiesteria.

One of them showed a concentration believed strong enough to affect the health of fish, Surrick said.

State fisheries scientists will continue to conduct tests and monitor fish health on the creek.

A worrisome factor in yesterday's announcement is that this year's weather in Maryland resembles the hot, dry conditions believed to have contributed to the 1997 outbreak.

There were no river closings or reports of human symptoms last year, when heavy rains early in the year brought cool, fresh water to the bay. The one report of a possible toxic Pfiesteria outbreak last year -- in the Chicamacomico River near Vienna -- did not pan out.

Yesterday's warning affects a stretch of Back Creek running from Raccoon Point to the Millard Long Road bridge.

Michael Shultz, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Raccoon Point is a popular recreation area.

Shultz said it would come as no surprise if toxic Pfiesteria were to re-emerge this year. "There's nothing that fundamentally has changed in the equation, and nobody knows precisely what the exact conditions are, the exact mix of things that will cause Pfiesteria to become toxic," he said.

Shultz noted that many Eastern Shore waterways are affected by nutrient pollution, which encourages the algae blooms that have been linked to toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks.

"Pfiesteria is a very well-adapted and interesting organism that seems to react to waters that are rich in algae," he said.

Pub Date: 8/19/99

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