RALEIGH — The Neuse River continually appears near the top of the list of the nation's sickest waterways. Sewage spills and a fish killing organism are dangerous to wildlife, but it depends on who you ask as to whether the river makes people sick or not.
Some say the river isn't as bad as everyone thinks. But some think it is bad, even dangerous. A fisherman says he's dying because of something he came in contact with in the water. That something is pfiesteria, a toxic organism that biologists around the world are calling the cell from hell. There is much debate about the organism, which was first identified six years ago by a little-known scientist at North Carolina State University. JoAnn Burkholder is now internationally-known and she is respected in many circles, despised in some and is always controversial.
Burkholder claims pfiesteria made her sick, as well as some of her co-workers but state researchers say there is no proof pfiesteria is harmful to humans.
"Millions of fish were dying," said Burkholder. "Pfiesteria excretes a toxin that first narcotizes fish, drugs them, makes them lethargic so they don't tend to move or leave. Then it kills them."
Pfiesteria attaches to cells and essentially eats them. Burkholder said as she learned more about the Neuse, she was able to draw conclusions about the organism.
"I was affected by this organism while I was working with toxic cultures of it in a laboratory setting," said Burkholder. "And all I remember is that I walked in one way and walked out very differently.
"I remember avoiding telephone conversations because I realized I couldn't remember what a person said at the beginning of their sentence by the time they reached the end of it. And basically I had no short term memory for about eight days.
"You get a cold, you get the flu. You don't get short term memory loss." said Burkholder.
Pfiesteria, as it's swimming around in a feeding frenzy, will engulf eight to 10 red blood cells over the course of about 45 minutes.
"What I am saying is the verdict is out and it should remain out, it must remain out until we have a way of determining for certain whether people are hurt by this organism," said Burkholder. "I cannot say the extent to which people are being hurt without that information."
David Jones, a fisherman, also says he was harmed by pfiesteria.
What is really so striking about the problem with the Neuse is its contrasts. A soothing sunset, the terrifying tale of David Jones.
There are contrasting opinions about his story. Some doctors say 100 other fishermen in the New Bern area may be suffering severe neurological damage from pfiesteria like Jones.
The State Health Department emphatically disagrees, saying there is no link between pfiesteria and human sickness. They say it is perfectly safe to swim in the Neuse, to boat in it, to fish in it. Governor Hunt will address the state's position in Wednesday night's documentary.