The Cost to Human Health

A Virginia Beach sign posted by the Virginia State Department of Health warns people against bathing or wading in the water after high bacteria levels were discovered. Photo by Andrea Moran/CBF Staff.
A Virginia Beach sign posted by the Virginia State Department of Health warns people against bathing or wading in the water after high bacteria levels were discovered. Photo by Andrea Moran/CBF Staff.

Restoring the Bay Is Imperative to Human Health

There's no denying it: Our environment and our health are intrinsically linked. Clearly, dirty waters are not only unhealthy for the fish, oysters, and crabs that live in them, they are unhealthy for the people who fish, swim, boat, and drink them. The restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams is vital to the protection of our human health.

Our Drinking Water

Polluted runoff not only causes low oxygen "dead zones" in the Chesapeake, which suffocate marine life such as crabs, oysters, and fish, it can also contaminate private drinking wells. In fact, recent studies found that between 21 and 60 percent of wells tested in Pennsylvania's lower Susquehanna River Basin had nitrate levels exceeding public drinking water standards. Drinking water with too much nitrates can raise the risk of cancer, nervous system deformities in infants, hemorrhaging of the spleen, and other problems.

Our Food

In the Chesapeake region, governments have issued statewide fish-consumption advisories for mercury for all lakes and rivers in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and for many rivers in Virginia. This heavy metal, often released by the burning of coal, pollutes waterways, taints fish, and can potentially damage human intelligence.

Our Air

Coal-fired power plants, like the one proposed in Dendron, Virginia, pose substantial human health risks, such as illnesses, premature deaths, health-related costs and so on. In the U.S., an estimated 20,000 heart attacks and 13,200 premature deaths per year are caused by fine particle pollution from coal-fired power plants. The annual cost of these illnesses and deaths has been estimated between $62 billion and $100 billion, with the toll falling heaviest on children and elderly.

Our Way of Life

The combination of warmer waters, nutrient pollution, animal waste, and sewage contribute to the growth of harmful bacteria in our waters such as Vibrio (a bacteria that can cause life-threatening skin and blood infections and intestinal illnesses), Cyanobacteria (a blue green algae that can cause liver disease, skin rashes, nausea, and vomiting), and Cryptosporidium (a protozoan that can cause gastro-intestinal illness). Nutrient pollution is caused by an excess of nitrogen and phosphorous from many sources, including stormwater runoff from streets, farm fields, barnyards, and lawns; discharges from sewage treatment plants, septic tanks, and industries; and air pollution from power plants, factories, and vehicles.

The Cost of Dirty Water

According to the Journal of Environmental Management, clearly polluted waters can lead to substantial medical costs and lost wages in addition to poor health, such as:

  • $37 (due to lost wages and medical care) for each gastrointestinal illness caused by exposure to polluted recreational marine waters;
  • $38 (due to lost wages and medical care) for each ear ailment caused by exposure to polluted recreational marine waters;
  • And $27 (due to lost wages and medical care) for each eye ailment caused by exposure to polluted recreational marine waters.

A Summer Swim Turns Ugly

Marylander Bernie Voith found himself in the hospital after a summer swim with this grandson. Photo by Tom Pelton/CBF Staff.

It was the Fourth of July weekend seven years ago, and Bernie Voith was swimming with his grandson behind Voith’s home on a tributary to the Severn River in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

Voith, a retired printer, had a tiny cut on his right calf that he got from scraping against a plastic deck chair earlier. He didn’t think much of it. "We were just fooling around, you know?"

When he climbed out of the water, he looked again at the scrape—and, to be safe, decided to apply disinfectant and a band aid. Then he went to bed, relaxed and happy after a weekend of fun with his family.

He woke at about 5 a.m., with a searing pain in his calf like somebody was sticking needles into the wound. "Then my finger tips all started to turn numb and I started hyperventilating," he recalled. "I was scared, so I called 911."

An ambulance drove him up to the hospital, where doctors discovered he had a temperature of 105 and a life-threatening bacterial blood infection.

One of his physicians, Dr. Sarah Jamieson, concluded that a variety of bacteria commonly found in human and animal feces had entered his cut—most likely from the water—and quickly raced through his body.

The dime-sized nick on his calf blossomed into a festering wound as wide as a tomato and filled with what looked like raw hamburger meat tinted yellow, red, and green.
"It was a very large and significant wound on his leg that he got while swimming in his creek," Dr. Jamieson said. "He was basically almost on the verge of death by the time he was admitted to the hospital . . . All system failure was where he was headed."

Voith eventually recovered, but he spent the next two weeks in the hospital, and four months in and out of medical treatment. "I felt very fortunate I didn't lose my leg or my life," Voith said.

Water quality monitoring on the Severn River not far from Voith's beach the day he got sick showed fecal bacteria at 10 times the level that the EPA would consider safe for swimming, according to Dr. Sally G. Hornor, a biology professor at Anne Arundel Community College who has been monitoring the river for nearly two decades. It rained that day, and bacteria levels in rivers often jump after rainfalls, because they flush bacteria from dog waste, leaky septic tanks, and other sources into waterways.

Another point downstream on the Severn that day had bacteria at nearly 30 times the EPA's recommended safe levels for swimming, Dr. Hornor's data show. Overall, Dr. Hornor's testing on the Severn River in recent years has found levels of bacteria above recommended EPA levels for swimming about 25 percent of the time.

"It's a travesty," said Dr. Hornor. "People used to swim here all the time and spend all the summer in the water as children. And now they can’t let their kids in the water anymore."

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