As a mother, an educator and a resident of Mobile, I am concerned about what I am reading and hearing about the health and safety of Mobile Bay. My career has focused on educating people about our local environment and how to be stewards of it. I choose to live here because of the amazing and beautiful environment we are blessed to have here, and if our bay is truly polluted to a level where it is unsafe to fish or swim, then that is a crisis that demands immediate action.
I’m currently working for an environmental consulting firm, and as a result of the continuing negativity about the health of the bay, I was tasked with conducting research into the data to ascertain the truth (or the fiction) behind this pervading story of our bay being so polluted that is unsafe to fish or swim. This letter represents my conclusions drawn from that research. It is time that we attempt to set the record straight with scientific facts.
Mobile Bay is the physical and emotional connection between our two coastal counties, a place deeply rooted in history, culture, recreation, cuisine and respite. Rumors of dirty, unhealthy waters are being voiced and propagated by all forms of media and even by at least one local physician. Our media has sensationalized stories of people having limbs amputated or even dying from a flesh-eating infection caused by bacteria in our water known as Vibrio vulnificus.
Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria found in salt and brackish waters (like our bay) worldwide. Vibriosis, the infection that may occur after exposure to Vibrio, is most often contracted through the consumption of raw or undercooked shellfish, or secondarily when an open wound is exposed to salt or brackish water. The risk of Vibrio causing severe illness is very low in people with healthy immune systems, but is higher in persons with liver disease, diabetes or other conditions that are known to weaken immune systems. Local health department officials confirmed the rarity of contracting a severe illness due to Vibrio, stating that severe illness was very rare for someone with a healthy immune system.
Officials further stated that if a person has open cuts or wounds, they should bandage those before exposing them to the water and should clean them thoroughly after contact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year in the United States, 80,000 individuals become sick with vibriosis, and 100 people die from their infection (“Vibrio Species Causing Vibriosis”). Data provided to me by the Alabama Department of Public Health states that there were 25 cases of vibriosis (non-cholera) in 2018 (by Sept. 22, 2018) and seven cases statewide in 2017 (Bryant). If you consider the large number of people who are exposed to Vibrio multiple times every year through seafood consumption, fishing, swimming, wading and a number of other activities, 25 cases in a year represents a very small risk of contracting the disease.
A second and more common cause of water-related illnesses is exposure to fecal contamination. Sampling and monitoring for the presence of enterococci, an indicator bacteria for pathogens that may be present in feces, is the procedure regularly utilized by state and local monitoring programs to determine the safety of our waters for swimming. Research dating back to 2012 has shown limitations with using enterococci to determine the safety of our waters for swimming, and the scientific community is actively evaluating alternatives to better assess human health risk. It is known that sewer system overflows are a periodic problem in our bay and no one would recommend swimming in the bay directly after a sewage spill. The upgrading of local sewer systems to utilize the best technology available and/or the removal of treatment plant outfalls from the bay should be an absolute priority. Citizens and local governments must stay informed and be proactive in requiring the utilities to implement solutions to prevent this problem.
Claiming that Mobile Bay is unsafe and should be avoided altogether is simply an opinion not based on facts. There are legitimate environmental issues affecting our bay and our communities, but the data available does not support the belief that our bay is not safe for swimming or fishing. Please do not allow misinformation and the fear it causes to prevent you and your children from experiencing the magic of Mobile Bay. As for me and my family, we will continue to enjoy spending time playing in the waters that make this place feel like home and we hope you will join us.
Helpful Resources for the Public:
Fish Consumption Advisories from the Alabama Department of Public Health: alabamapublichealth.gov/tox/fish-advisories.html
To receive email notifications of sewer spills from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, follow these steps:
- Visit adem.alabama.gov/emailNotification/default.aspx.
- Check the last box, labeled “Sanitary Sewer Overflows,” under the header “I would like to be notified when:”
- Select the counties you would like to be notified about.
- Click “submit.”
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