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Sewage spills a toxic stew just waiting to infect people, pets

South Florida Sun Sentinel - 1/2/2020

The toxic stew that’s been bubbling up on the thoroughfares of Fort Lauderdale is more than just a noxious, stinking mess.

It can kill you. Chances are it won’t, but the bacteria, parasites and viruses stirring in that toxic stew can still make you very sick, experts warn.

Hundreds of residents have been forced to watch their step as toxic sludge seeped from six sewer main breaks in Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods from Rio Vista to Victoria Park and Coral Ridge.

Things to worry about

Raw sewage, swarming with pathogens and bacteria, can sicken people and pets, said Dr. Robert Smith, a microbiologist and associate professor at Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography at Nova Southeastern University.

“With a big sewage spill, I’m worried about viral infections, bacterial infections, parasites,” Smith said.

Say someone in one part of the city has pinworms, Smith said. The worms live on in their stool. And that stool gets flushed into the sewer system.

When there’s a sewer main break, the pinworms can wind up swimming up a street in another neighborhood -- not to mention the waterways surrounding Fort Lauderdale.

That’s because the city pumps sewage into the waterways to keep it from infiltrating homes and businesses.

In December alone, hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage were pumped into the Tarpon River after the first sewer main break on Dec. 10. How much remains a mystery for now.

Fort Lauderdale, which like all cities is required to report sewage spills to the state, was granted an extension and is not expected to disclose the amount of gallons spilled until at least Jan. 10, a state spokesman said.

Worms in your poop

If pinworms are swirling around in the sewage on the streets and you accidentally get some of that sewer water in your mouth, you now have pinworms too.

“You’re going to have a pretty itchy butt,” Smith said. “And you’re going to see worms in your poop. They’ll be alive.”

If you get slimed by the toxic sludge, you can pick up other diseases, including rotavirus and norovirus, resulting in diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramping, nausea and vomiting.

Another risk: Hepatitis A, which can bring on fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea and fever.

Then there’s E. coli, which can lead to diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, vomiting and even kidney failure if not addressed properly. Salmonella, commonly associated with food poisoning, is another threat lurking in the sludge, Smith said.

The best way to protect yourself: Stay away from it. And if you do come in contact with sewage-tainted water, wash your hands.

“You can significantly reduce your risk by washing your hands,” Smith said.

The stuff that’s getting flushed down toilets is more than just poop.

“In sewage you can find a lot of pharmaceuticals,” Smith said. “Prescription pills, drugs. Prozac. Birth control pills. Your body can pee a lot of that out.”

Smith has this advice for people who find sludge encroaching on their front door: Leave home.

“That’s what I would do,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to have poop outside my house.”

An experienced fisherman reportedly became ill when a cut on his leg left him vulnerable to infection from sewage-contaminated waters.

Fisherman sick

John Tedder told WPLG-Ch. 10 he was catching bait in the New River on Christmas Day and felt sick soon after.

“I couldn’t stand on my left leg, it was swollen all the way to my kneecap,” Tedder told Ch. 10. Concerned, he drove himself to the emergency room.

“He has been in the hospital for three days and things are not getting better for him,” a friend posted on Facebook on Dec. 28.

The waterways aren’t clean to start with, but the sewage spills make it even more dirty and unsafe.

No one knows this better than the divers who spend hours at a time cleaning the hulls of boats and yachts.

“I don’t think the spills changed it all that much because the rivers were already dirty,” said Richard Bassett, owner of the Fort Lauderdale-based hull cleaning company Barnacle King. “We’re in the canals every day. We have to wear full face masks to protect ourselves. We are fully protected head to toe. We wear hoods and gloves and wet suits.”

Still, the recent sewage spills only made things worse.

“The visibility is bad,” Bassett said. “You see garbage floating. And the water is really brown.”

Roland Salerno, an owner of Diver Underwater Maintenance in Fort Lauderdale, suspended all hull cleaning work until after the new year after the spate of sewer main breaks.

“It’s very dangerous,” he said. “If you get cut by a barnacle underwater, you might get an infection you can’t stop. You can get hepatitis and your body might not be able to fight it off.”

The same toxins that put people at risk can endanger pets if they drink the dirty water or lick it off their fur, experts say.

“They could die if it was bad enough,” said Dr. Ahna Brutlag, director of vet services at the Pet Poison Helpline. “Gross stuff happens when you eat poop.”

No place for a dog

Nancy Brand’s front yard turned into a pond when the first sewer main break hit on Dec. 10 in Rio Vista -- not exactly prime dog walking territory.

She was not about to walk Colin, her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, through the muck.

“We had to put him in the car and drive him for a walk,” she said. “Dogs lick themselves and if you walk them through that you’re going to have a very sick pup. We did that for at least 10 days.”

Brand and her husband didn’t care to slog through the muck either.

“We drove through the sludge in our SUVs,” she said. “I kind of stayed in. It was pretty gross.”

And what we find gross a cat or dog may not, said Dr. Brutlag from the Pet Poison Helpline.

“Dogs eat their own poop sometimes, so they are not the most refined creatures,” she said. “Cats tend to be more finicky. But they might walk through sewage and get exposed when they groom the sewage off their feet and fur.”

If you think your pet might have come into contact with raw sewage, give it a quick bath to wash any toxins from the fur, Brutlag said. Wear rubber gloves and use liquid dish soap, she advised.

If you notice vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite, get the pet to a vet.

“We can give them fluids under the skin,” Brutlag said. “We can test for E. coli or salmonella and give them antibiotics or probiotics. It’s always better to catch things early rather than later.”

Marine life was also in danger, as evidenced by the untold number of fish that died during the sewage deluge.

Bob Roscioli, a shipyard owner in Fort Lauderdale, has fond memories of swimming and fishing in the New River as a teenager in the 1950s.

“It was a paradise,” he said. “I could see to the bottom. We used to catch a lot of fish in the river. I wouldn’t eat anything from that river today. It’s a disgrace what’s going on. Now you have the danger of getting an infectious disease if you go in there. When I was a boy, it was pristine.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4554.

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