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A Taste for Waste

By Joe Strykowski


This mornings mail brought and interesting magazine article. It described Japan's latest recycling breakthrough, a meat substitute of soybean and bathroom sewage. Think of it, bacon made of shit.

Most divers will find the idea of eating processed excrement repugnant. Yet millions around the world risk life - threatening disease by swimming in oceans alive with untreated sewage.

Explosive Growth of Tourism
In ten years, tourism has become the worlds largest industry with gross sales exceeding 2 trillion dollars. Throughout the world, hotels, resorts, and cruise ships created to accommodate the rapid growth of tourism discharge raw sewage into the ocean. Millions of unsuspecting tourist are encouraged to snorkel in sewage populated waters. Divers need to understand the impact of sewage pollution on public health.

Corals Under Siege
Moving to Jamaica in 1962, my first concern was the health of the coral reefs. In "Jamaica's Silent Reefs," I wrote: "Sewage discharged into the sea is contaminating microscopic plant and animal life. Taken slightly, each problem is a grave hazard; collectively, they spell the inevitable and certain destruction of Jamaica's coral reefs."

Sewage is tourism’s dirty little secret. Government Officials have been aware of the high levels of raw sewage off Jamaica's beaches for 25 years. They have simply ignored the warnings.

I single Jamaica out only because I am intimately familiar with the island. Everything happening there is being visited on costal waters through out the world. Untreated or improperly treated sewage can be found throughout my home state, Florida.

Sewage Seepage in the Florida Keys puts an annual $2 billion in tourism revenue at risk. Tourists come for white sand beaches, crystal waters and lush coral reefs. It's worth remembering, in less than 25 years, Jamaica's once spectacular coral reefs have been overwhelmed and smothered by algae. And the sewage discharge threatens more than the coral reefs.

Humans at Risk
Each 8 seconds, a child dies of diarrheic disease somewhere in the world. The World Health Organization confirms 68,500 human beings die each day from diseases of polluted or inadequate water.

That’s over 25 million deaths each year.

Fueling future epidemic is an exploding global population crowding onto costal margins, exacerbating the problem of already unsafe water.

Most human pathogens may be classified as viruses, bacteria, intestinal worms or protozoa. A bacterium might be one thousandth of an inch, but viruses are so small a single teaspoon of seawater may contain more than one billion virus particles.

Viruses and bacteria discharged into the sewage-polluted waters spread disease and survive in the sea for many months.

Typical human exposure includes swallowing water, swimming, or consumption of seafood. The 1991 cholera outbreak along the Texas gulf coast was caused by bacteria from contaminated shellfish. Sewage pollution of shellfish has precipitated outbreaks of enteric disease, particularly typhoid fever and infectious hepatitis.

Diluting the coliform produced by one person in one day to levels acceptable for shellfish sanitation standards requires 5 million gallons of water.

Coliform Bacteria
Every natural body of water contains some level of pathogens and excrement. Coliform bacterial counts are used to estimate the number of pathogens in a water body.

Fecal coliform bacteria occur naturally in the lower intestine of humans. A human produces more than 2 billion coliform bacteria each day. Since Fecal coliform bacteria are rare in unpolluted waters, their presence is a reliable indicator of fecal contamination. Test results are expressed as the number of bacteria per 100 milliliters (ml) of water.

Permissible fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml of water for drinking is 0. The maximum permissible level for swimming is 1,000 per 100 ml; (the desirable level is 200 or less). Researchers in the Caribbean have record counts as high as 5,600 per 100 ml in popular reef areas.

So How Does It Get There?
Consider the mighty Mississippi, that great chemical corridor to the Gulf of Mexico. More than 460 municipalities discharge one billion gallons of sewage into the gulf every day.

Municipal sewage plants globally are becoming increasingly overloaded and antiquated. Jamaica is a well-documented case in point. Ocho Rios, the centerpiece of Jamaica’s 42-mile stretch of north coast highway, is easily the island's fastest growing resort area.

Near the cruise ships' pier is "The Fort," a tall stone disguised for an enormous sewage treatment plant. It was designed to treat a maximum of 500,000 gallons of sewage a day. A plant spokesman admitted more than 1,500,000 gallons were being processed daily. He further acknowledged critical operations were commonly omitted and chlorination frequently was not working properly. (Effluents discharged into the sea are chlorinated to inactive fecal bacteria.)

Because the plant is overloaded and not working properly, the sewage is not being safely treated. Between 1.5 and 2 million gallons of sewage drains into the sea inside the reef each day, while thousands of unsuspecting tourist and Jamaicans snorkel the polluted waters. To make matters worse, the Pan American Health Organization estimates only a fraction of Jamaica's septic tanks pass through any treatment. Instead raw sewage washes into coastal waters where excess nutrients trigger algal blooms. The water may look clear, but the sewage is killing the sea grass beds and eroding reef animal habitat.

In 1962, when the first tourist facility was constructed in Negril, two events sounded an alarm for me. Water tests showed evidence of non-fecal infectious organisms. On a hunch, I climbed to the roof to inspect the rain water catchment. In the main water supply floated two dead rats.

The contractor understandably proud of his government-approved septic system and confident in his ability to do the job. I dropped two dye-tracer tablets in a toilet, flushed and walked outside. By the time I got into my dive gear, a yellow-green cloud covered the fringing reef.

You Are Not Helpless.
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency regularly gives notice when public hearings are to be held. You can comment on vital issues in person or through written comments. Get involved with local, national or international groups that are following this issue. Voice your opinions and concerns.