Sickened by the condition of the Chesapeake?

Our Opinion

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The pollution of the Chesapeake Bay has helped deplete the crab, oyster and fish population. It could also kill you, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Or at least make you sick.

In a report released two weeks ago, the foundation said that rising temperatures and increased nutrient pollution have turned the bay into "a warm pond with a broth of nutrients at the right temperature to breed algae and bacteria."

Those bacteria, according the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, include Cryptosporidium, which causes diarrhea but can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems.

Then there is Vibrio, which can cause skin and blood infections and intestinal illnesses.

Cyanobacteria can cause skin rashes, liver disease, nausea and vomiting.

Heard enough? Then leave aside the warnings that nitrates, which cause much of the destruction in the bay, can contaminate wells and have been linked to certain kinds of cancer.

As an advocacy group, it is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's mission to raise these kinds of alarms. This is just the foundation's latest bid to paint alarming scenarios to attract attention and spur action to stop the degradation of the Chesapeake. If the steady and slow destruction of a great natural resource isn't reason enough to spur aggressive cleanup action, perhaps warnings about threats to human health will do the trick.

Or maybe not. We are warned about the dangers of so many things we eat, drink and breathe that it's hard to make an impression; and it's not as though the warnings about the declining health of the Chesapeake have been utterly ignored. Pledges to clean up the bay have been made repeatedly. The demoralizing truth is that so many of the actions taken have proven ineffectual.

So the problem with these latest warnings is not that people will just dismiss them as alarmist propaganda, though there will be some of that. The broader concern is that people will be paralyzed into inaction. Take seriously all the warnings about health hazards around us and the world can look pretty hopeless.

But this shouldn't be ignored. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation might be raising new health concerns, but we've already been warned by scientists and government that we should limit the amount of fish from the bay that we eat. There is concern about mercury contamination, and concerns about polychlorinated biphenyls in rockfish led last month to confusing warnings about limiting consumption of those fish, especially for children and pregnant women.

Much of the damage to the bay can be reversed. It involves reducing the nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and other pollutants entering the water. That is going to require greater efforts than have already been made, and more limits on activities in the bay watershed.

But if the alternative is that eventually it will not be safe to eat the bay's seafood, or to swim or even touch the waters of the Chesapeake, that's a far greater sacrifice.