Live Infectious Viruses
From Human Waste Found
In Florida Keys Canals
By Lisa Fuss
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 meningitis.
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 regulatory authority.
``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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