The bay and your health

August 04, 2006

Sea nettles aren't the only life forms that might make you think twice about wading into the Chesapeake Bay, particularly during Maryland's steamy summers. Nettles may sting, but the pain is short-lived, and usually you can spot the gelatinous floaters before you enter the water. It's what you can't see - microscopic bacteria and viruses - that you really have to worry about. That is, if you even know about it.

Maryland ranks in the top 10 states with the most periodically contaminated beaches, according to a report released yesterday by the nongovernmental Natural Resources Defense Council. And although most people who have contact with bay water are fine, exposure to the contaminates can sometimes cause a variety of maladies, including eye and ear infections, skin rashes, hepatitis, and intestinal and respiratory illnesses.

State beaches, mostly around the bay, were closed or posted with advisories 209 days last year, an increase of 6 percent over the previous year and the highest number in the past four years. Most of the pollution comes from storm-water runoff and sewage spills, two consequences of how humans have altered the landscape around the bay.

We know we'll never experience a bay as clean as the one explored by Capt. John Smith in the early 1600s. We'll be lucky if we ever see the bay as clean as in the days of Captain Chesapeake, the kids' TV host of the 1970s. Despite boatloads of money and countless Save the Bay bumper stickers, the bay remains sick. The Ehrlich administration's "flush tax" may go a long way toward preventing tons of pollution from entering the bay, but if we continue to crowd the shoreline with homes, boatyards, parking lots and, yes, dogs, don't expect the bay to get better. And don't expect the beaches to be any less hazardous to your health.

In the meantime, standardizing water-quality testing has never been more crucial. Equally important is posting the data to an easily available and intelligible clearinghouse, perhaps a Web site. Among state and local officials and a wide range of volunteer and environmental groups, Maryland waters are monitored routinely, if not always equally. For example, Kent County officials test water at public beaches and boat landings. In neighboring Queen Anne's County, only beaches are tested. Health department test results are fed to state officials, but volunteer river monitors often make their data available only to a local audience. Much of the information is out there. But if the public cannot access it, who's benefiting?

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