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Unless wildlife warnings heed ed pollution could trigger human health problems

Florida Today

24th May 2004

Indian River Lagoon pollution could trigger human health problems

Diseased marine life in the Indian River Lagoon could damage your health.

Yes, that's right, your health.

That's the troubling prediction of some experts who presented concerns about the lagoon's condition at a recent conference at Florida Tech.

There's no denying lagoon animals increasingly show signs of environmental distress, likely caused by pollution.

Scientists at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce and finding a high incidence of ulcer-like stomach conditions in dolphins this year.

Previous studies detected a laundry list of ailments in the mammals -- from hepatitis to heart disease, to skin and central nervous system disorders.

As for the sea turtles, they're plagued by tumour-like growths.

Are we asking for similar troubles in humans if we ignore the warnings these diseased creatures are sending?

Only time will tell, but as we've said repeatedly, the 156-mile long lagoon is severely imperilled, reaching what appears to be a critical mass of pollutants. And rapid growth along its shoreline is making the situation worse.

Every week, 400 more people move into the lagoon's watershed, which covers 40 percent of Florida's east coast. With them come more paving of undeveloped lands, loss of habitat, use of lawn chemicals, and more polluted storm water run-off headed towards the lagoon.

Conference experts say air pollution from cars, industry and power plants could be adding toxins to the lagoon's pollutant load.

Amid all this gloom, there is some good news: Substantial funds -- nearly $ 8.7 million to improve water quality in the estuary -- have been appropriated by the state Legislature this year, says Troy Rice, director of the Indian River Lagoon Program.

That's direly needed money which must be used for more studies to pinpoint what's causing diseases in dolphins and other creatures, acquisition of crucial wetlands and more storm water run-off projects to filter tainted water.

But, we reiterate, the big picture must be addressed, and that means putting in place a comprehensive federal-state-local plan to manage the entire ecosystem before human health problems linked to the lagoon start making headlines.

Think we're being alarmist?

Then consider the pocketbook angle. Imagine what would happen to area property values if signs were posted along the banks of the lagoon saying "No Swimming or Fishing."

That's not farfetched. The Environmental Protection Agency says nearly half the estuaries in the United States are unsuitable for human activities because of pollution.

And in 1998, southern parts of the Indian River Lagoon were closed to swimming after rainfall sent heavily polluted water from Lake Okeechobee surging through a canal into the estuary. The results were countless fish that died from gaping, oozing sores.

It could happen again, and will if residents don't get involved and demand quicker action to protect the endangered lagoon -- and so themselves