- MARATHON - Three Keys canals
or near-shore areas contain live infectious viruses from human waste that
can cause serious illnesses, according to a report released to several
local and state environmental agencies.
- Researchers from the University of South Florida sampled
water at seven sites, from Key Largo to Key West, and results show that
canals and near-shore waters in Key Largo, Lower Matecumbe Key and Marathon
contain viruses that cause polio and viral meningitis, along with a variety
of others that cause lesser viral illnesses.
- Initial water-quality culture tests revealed the presence
of live enteroviruses -- including polio, coxsackie A and B and echoviruses
-- in Key Largo's Sexton Cove and a gulf-side cove area behind Marathon
Government Center. Captains Cove, a canal basin in the Port Antigua neighborhood
of Lower Matecumbe Key, also has tested positive for the live viruses.
- Four other sites tested -- Jolly Roger Park and Ocean
Reef Club in Key Largo, Eden Pines in Big Pine Key and Rest Beach in Key
West -- were negative for those specific live viruses. Former USF researcher
Dale Griffin, who headed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded
study, is currently conducting additional culture tests in all seven areas
to determine whether the canals contain other types of live viruses.
- ``Basically, these tests can detect viruses that [the
initial tests] can't see,'' said Griffin, who now works for the U.S. Geological
Survey Center for Coastal Geology in St. Petersburg. ``They are also going
to be able to tell us whether the live viruses already found are vaccine
strains or not.''
- Griffin has forwarded a report of his initial findings
to agencies that oversee water quality in the Keys, including the state
Department of Environmental Protection, the EPA and the Monroe County Health
Department. Once tests are complete, Griffin will provide officials with
a complete report of his research.
- So far, the news isn't good. Griffin insists swimming
or fishing in some Keys canals could be hazardous to health. Even wading
or eating raw or improperly cooked fish from infectious areas carries considerable
health risks. Coxsackie A and B cause diseases such as herpangina and myocarditis.
Echoviruses can cause a variety of illnesses, ranging from fever to viral
- All the detected viruses, says Griffin, are transmissible
by human feces and are believed to have migrated into Keys canals and near-shore
waters in raw sewage from leaking cesspools and septic tanks. The leakage
from outdated waste-water treatment systems has prompted state officials
to mandate that Monroe County complete an upgrade of virtually all sewage
systems in the Keys by 2010.
- Jack Teague, environmental health administrator for the
health department, said he has received numerous phone calls from concerned
residents of areas where the live viruses were found.
- One Lower Matecumbe Key homeowner, Brian Faust, also
contacted Griffin to discuss a rare and near-fatal viral heart infection
doctors guessed he may have picked up in Mexico. Faust told The Herald
he often swam in Captains Cove.
- ``Anything is possible,'' Griffin said of Faust and the
possibility his illness stemmed from live viruses in Lower Matecumbe.
- Despite the detection of live viruses in Keys canals,
Teague said his agency does not have the authority to warn the public about
unsafe water there. Currently, the health department only issues health
advisories at public swimming areas such as Keys beaches.
- Gus Rios, Monroe's environmental administrator for the
state Department of Environmental Protection, said his agency doesn't have
the authority to issue health advisories or handle water-quality problems
caused by septic tanks and cesspools.
- Even if either agency were to take responsibility for
water quality in canals, Teague said it would be too early to take action.
- ``At this point, the information is preliminary and it
has to be sort of digested and analyzed before we could decide how to react,''
said Teague, who attributes lack of responsibility of canals to a gap in
- ``Understandably, there's been a fair amount of concern
over this, but it's not entirely a surprise. It's what we've been saying
all along, that there is a problem with waste-water treatment in the Keys
and we have to move forward with the [sewage treatment] plans already in
place before anything can improve.''
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