Considering the risk of disease along the Skokomish

I guess I’m a numbers freak. When I heard about human waste being deposited along the Skokomish River, my first reaction was to wonder about fecal bacterial counts. What kind of numbers were showing up in the water samples?

Then I realized that health officials were dealing with something different from a typical septic failure or broken sewer line. Numbers were not the issue. Health officials who observed piles of human waste were compelled to close commercial shellfish beds at the mouth of the Skokomish River or face the risk that people would get sick from eating the shellfish.

As I described in a story in today’s Kitsap Sun, some anglers along the Skokomish had been wandering into the bushes to do their business instead of seeking out a portable toilet. Contributing factors may have been too few portable toilets, toilets in the wrong places and even toilets filled to rim.

I had to remind myself that fecal coliform bacteria and specifically Escherichia coli are “indicators” that waste from warm-blooded animals may be nearby. The overriding concern is not with those bacteria. Far more scary are the dangerous bacteria, viruses and protozoa that could be present in human waste — especially among people who are ill and those who are “carriers” of disease organisms.

Water quality tests, which may or may not indicate the presence of human feces, weren’t needed along Skokomish River, not when state health officials found pile after pile of human waste — including diarrhea. There were reports of people accidentally stepping in the waste and then wading into the river.

The list of organisms in sewage that can cause disease is quite long. I’ve always been concerned about people getting hepatitis from shellfish, particularly when people eat them raw.

But Bob Woolrich of the state Office of Shellfish and Water Protection told me that other viruses may be a greater concern because they are more common and highly contagious. He mentioned rotavirus, which infects one in 10 people every year.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea in infants and children. About 500,000 people die each year from rotavirus infections, according to the World Health Organization (PDF 296 kb). Most cases are in developing countries, but other studies indicate that a few dozen U.S. residents die each year from rotavirus. About 2.7 million children in this country come down with severe gastroenteritis from the virus, including 60,000 who become hospitalized. It also causes severe problems for elderly people and those battling other illnesses.

Rotavirus is passed by fecal-oral transmission. The feces of an infected person can contain 10 trillion infectious particles per gram, yet as few as 10 particles may be able to infect the next person. The virus is stable and has been found in estuaries, where viral particles can be concentrated by shellfish.

I could talk about other organisms found in human waste, but I think you get the point. You never want to eat food contaminated with animal waste, but the risks are greater when we’re talking about human waste.

Washington’s shellfish industry has earned a reputation for providing safe shellfish to the nation. State and county health departments play critical roles in maintaining that reputation. Continual water testing provides early warnings of disease risk. And when an illness does occur, the system allows the source to be identified and dealt with quickly.

Given the overall success at preventing waterborne disease in this state, it must be shocking for health officials to discover third-world conditions in a relatively remote area along the Skokomish River.

8 thoughts on “Considering the risk of disease along the Skokomish

  1. What a bunch of crap! Every day I find dog poop near Strawberry Creek in Silverdale. Does that mean we should shut down Dyes Inlet without first testing the water quality? Animals both wild and domestic crap in and around every stream in the state, should we close them all down?

  2. Thanks for clicking over to the blog, but I’d like you to read the entry again, because you are supporting my explanation.

    We should be concerned about animal waste and try to address the problem, because animals do carry pathogens. But the presence of human waste near our food is a problem of a different magnitude.

    By the way, dog feces in northern Dyes Inlet may contribute to pollution that is keeping this area closed to shellfish harvesting. Water-quality tests in that area are continuing.

  3. Chris – Speaking of animal waste, the article got me wondering about the effect of bears on salmon streams. I’ve never been to Alaska, but have seen shows about bears flocking to the streams in large numbers during salmon runs (much like the anglers with no place to go on the Skok). What effect does the inevitable bear poop have on the ecology of what(one would think) are otherwise pristine streams?

    Chris Henry, SK/government reporter

  4. If any experts in the audience would like to weigh in on this discussion, please do so … online or offline.

    My understanding is that routine testing of commercial shellfish growing areas is designed to identify the presence of fecal bacteria from whatever the source. Shellfish beds immediately downstream from huge numbers of bears would probably be closed based on such tests, though I’ve never heard of this happening in Washington.

    On the other hand, I guess I should point out that most, but not all, foodborne illnesses can be avoided with thorough cooking. That’s why you are advised to cook hamburger until it is no longer pink, even though careful slaughter prevents most contamination.

    Shellfish tend to create a greater risk, all things considered, because they are frequently not cooked long enough, if at all, to kill all the dangerous organisms that may be present.

  5. Sometimes I think the technology we have to ‘analyse’ things magnifies the potential of problems far more than they really are a problem. Further, a cost-benefit analysis is in order.

    Do we spend a lot of money to put porta-potties near fishing holes or do we spend that money toward infant health programs or immunization programs (for example)? I’d prefer the latter to the former. And, frankly, given the state’s fiscal condition, I couldn’t justify some of this over analysis and ‘mitigation’. I’d rather us take a risk with the waterway where few people are at risk to the risk that we all are at when children aren’t properly immunized.

    If we take this to the extreme, as Chris mentioned, of worrying about the skat from animals that have inhabited our forests and river areas since the dawn of time, where do we draw the line? Do we establish a zero tolerance for animals near our estuaries and relocate them. Yeah, I’m sounding extremist, but it is a legitimate question to ask, “Where do we draw the line on risk tolerance”?

    I’m not meaning to sound harsh. Though I’m sure someone will think that I am.

    Kathryn Simpson

  6. Most folks want to eliminate the source of contamination rather than ignore it.
    Giving folks shots to lessen the impact of a disease caused by the source of ignored contamination seems shortsighted.

    Providing porta potties for the most popular fishing spots might well be the cheapest route to avoid the cost of future human and financial hardship caused by human feces.

    “…scary are the dangerous bacteria, viruses and protozoa that could be present in human waste — especially among people who are ill and those who are “carriers” of disease organisms….”

    Sharon O’Hara

  7. The response and position taken by the agencies involved is “impotent” at this stage. Mason County Dept. of Environmental Health Manager, Debbie Riley, as well as representatives from WDFW have decided to allow the contamination to flush into Hood Canal. This positon will only extend the closure of Annas Bay because the sport fisher season, the source of most of the contaminants, is active until November. As a commercial shellfish farmer in Hood Canal I have lost access to twelve commercial sites that I have been farming for over a decade. The financial impact to my company is extensive. The “blemish” this has created to the shellfish industry in Washington State is enormous. While I am grateful to these agencies for their response to this environmental mess we still have a long way to go.

    Scott Grout
    Gold Coast Oyster Farms LLC

  8. ” Mason County Dept. of Environmental Health Manager, Debbie Riley, as well as representatives from WDFW have decided to allow the contamination to flush into Hood Canal….”

    How is it that dog owners are required to pick up after their dogs, yet can leave their own deadly mess anywhere?

    The fisherfolks leaving those deposits need to clean up the messes… why aren’t they? Why let the contamination cause further damage when it can be stopped now?

    Funny thing too… why would anyone would want to eat fish caught in the same water the fisherfolks contaminate?
    Sharon O’Hara

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