Water Quality Issues: Bad Waters

BAD WATERS: THE IMPACT ON HUMAN HEALTH IN THE CHESAPEAKE BAY REGION
A CBF Report

“This report clearly identifies pollution related human health risks that need to be corrected. Does it mean that one should never swim in local rivers or the Bay? No. But the fact these problems exist, and that solutions are available, is an indictment of EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Water Act and underscores why we filed a lawsuit to force change.”

– Will Baker, President, Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Download Bad Water 2009: The Impact on Human Health in the Chesapeake Bay Region [pdf]

The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are stunningly beautiful and central to the culture and economy of the whole Mid-Atlantic region. But beneath the surface, pollution and bacteria are spawning human health threats that some scientists see as a warning. Citizens and governments should take notice.

On July 7, 2009, CBF released Bad Water 2009: The Impact on Human Health in the Chesapeake Bay Region. The report links pollution to human health risks and calls on the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act now to reduce that pollution and the potential threats to human health.

Reports of human infections from one especially dangerous species of bacteria, Vibrio, while still small in number are rising significantly in Virginia and perhaps in Maryland, as well. Dr. Rita Colwell, a prominent researcher and director of the National Science Foundation from 1998-2004, believes nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is contributing to the problem. The occurrence of other types of bacteria is so widespread that some health agencies are recommending that people avoid swimming after any substantial rain event.

Another pollution-related human health issue highlighted in the report is elevated nitrate levels in drinking water wells. In 2007, the Thomas family from York County, Pennsylvania learned that their private well water contained more than twice the level of nitrates than EPA’s maximum contaminant level for public drinking water. Unfortunately, they are not alone. A variety of studies have been done in the Lower Susquehanna region, and results found that from 20-60 percent of the drinking water wells exceeded the federal nitrate limits.

Nitrates in ground water move into our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, helping to fuel the growth of algae. A 2008 study by the U.S. Geological Survey looked at Mycroscystis blooms around the Bay and found that almost a third of the blooms contained toxins in levels sufficient to make the water unsafe for children to swim in. Microscystis is not the only harmful algal species to be concerned about. Due to increased research, since 1996 the number of harmful algal species identified in the Bay has grown from 12 to 34.

Finally, the report looks at the impact of mercury pollution on fish consumption across the region. Mercury is a highly toxic chemical and can cause neurological disorders, especially to developing nervous systems. For that reason, fish consumption advisories have been issued for all Pennsylvania rivers and lakes, all Maryland lakes, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay, and 12 major river systems in Virginia.

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