By Kate Yanchulis, News21
BALTIMORE (July 16, 2010)—For the thousands of daily visitors to Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the water serves as a picturesque backdrop and an inviting diversion.
But visitors should think twice before trailing an arm along the water's edge.
A water sample tested July 7 revealed that the bacteria level in the Inner Harbor was almost five times the safe limit for human contact.
The sample, scooped from the water next to Harborplace mall's Pratt Street Pavilion and the USS Constellation Historic Ships Museum, contained 724 colony-forming units of the enterococci bacteria per 100 milliliters of water.
Levels exceeding 151 units of the bacteria per 100 milliliters of fresh water are unsafe for human recreation, according to Maryland's water quality standards.
The results did not surprise Eliza Smith Steinmeier who, as the Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper, fights to protect the water quality.
"I say it's not safe to recreate in the harbor," Steinmeier said. "You run the risk of infection, anything from your basic gastrointestinal infection to far worse things."
The July 7 sample was collected by fellows at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, who also scooped water from six tributaries feeding the Chesapeake Bay as part of a summer reporting project on bay pollution. The fellows are part of News21, a national multimedia reporting program.
Sally Hornor, a biology professor at Anne Arundel Community College, analyzed all the samples for News21. She called the Inner Harbor's bacteria levels "dangerously elevated."
The sample from the harbor was the only one of the seven analyzed that exceeded safe levels, Hornor's tests revealed. Other samples were taken from the Anacostia River in Southwest Washington, the Potomac River in Virginia, and the Severn, Patapsco and Patuxent rivers in Maryland. Those bacteria levels ranged from two to 64 units per 100 milliliters of water. (See related map.)
Maryland follows the EPA's national guidelines for water quality. The bacteria limits mark the point at which more than eight in 1,000 people would be predicted to contract a gastrointestinal illness after full-body contact with the water.
Enterococci bacteria are present in high levels in the fecal matter of warm-blooded animals. While the enterococci themselves are unlikely to cause illness, they indicate the presence of sewage and all the other harmful bacteria that come with it, Hornor said.
The majority of the bacteria in the harbor come from the city's sewage system, which overflows into storm drains during heavy rains, Steinmeier said.
Steinmeier cautioned that one test cannot give the full sweep of the bacteria problems in the Inner Harbor or in any body of water.
News21 is repeating the tests later this month, after a heavy rain, to see what impact storm water runoff and sewage system overflows have on bacteria levels.
The Baltimore test result underscores the difficulty the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay tributaries have in fulfilling the goals of the federal Clean Water Act, which include making every body of water in the nation swimmable and fishable.
The Baltimore waterkeeper said the July 7 result from the harbor is far from uncommon. She partnered with Baltimore's Department of Public Works last year to run bacteria tests around the harbor from April through November, and she found bacteria levels that reached tens of thousands per 100 milliliters of water.
"One number is not going to paint the whole picture, but just looking at my chart of numbers, it's certainly not anywhere near the highest," Steinmeier said.
Maryland recognizes the Inner Harbor as one of its most impaired waters. As required by the Clean Water Act, the Maryland Department of the Environment maintains a list of water bodies that do not meet water quality standards, and the harbor is on that list of 585.
The bacteria aren't the only pollutants tainting the harbor's water quality. It's also threatened by decades of industrial pollution from toxic metals and chemicals.
At a beach, a bacteria level of 724 would elicit an advisory against direct contact with the water and heavy testing by MDE and the local health department.
But Brian Schleter, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Health Department, said no bacteria testing is required at the Inner Harbor because the city has no public beach there. He directed questions on bacteria levels to the Environmental Protection Agency and MDE.
The city's Health Department does advise against any contact with the harbor water. And if someone touches the water, the department's Web site says to "wash the affected body part with soap soon after exposure and shower if necessary."
Infections can come through "open cuts, ears, eyes, what you ingest accidentally," said Denise Hakowski, who works with EPA's mid-Atlantic office on water quality standards.
But many visitors are unaware of health risks associated with coming into contact with Inner Harbor water.
When told about the test results, Aiisha McLean, 31, from Detroit, Mich., said she found the prospect of being exposed to dirty water "pretty nasty."
"Will they be able to clean it?" asked McLean. "Probably 50 years from now, if they try hard enough."
While Steinmeier has seen a few people swimming in the harbor, she is most concerned for those rowing kayaks or reeling in fishing lines or just reaching into the water to grab something they dropped.
"You don't necessarily restrict your activities after that sort of indirect contact, and it's not because we're stupid," Steinmeier said.
"It's just a natural reaction to grab that water bottle and take a drink. But what you don't realize is that you just contaminated your water bottle, and you could get sick."
News21's Daniela Feldman and Allison Frick contributed to this report.
This story was produced by the News21 team at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.