Local News

Researchers Developing Test for Pfiesteria

Posted November 11, 1997 12:00 a.m. EST

— The nation's leading pfiesteria researchers met Monday in the Triangle to discuss the latest findings on the toxic fish killer, including whether pfiesteria is dangerous to humans.

People disagree on just how serious pfiesteria is. But, there's word today about something most people would agree is a good thing. Researchers at the meeting said they are close to a test for pfiesteria.

Pfiesteria is believed to be responsible for fish kills all over the East Coast. Some believe Pfiesteria also caused illness in humans in both North Carolina and Maryland.

"Maryland benefitted totally from our expertise," said Donald Schmechel, Duke University. "They consulted heavily with our team about how to handle this and they had a very acute outbreak where people were getting sick on day to day, week to week basis. That was a much easier situation to solve. I really have no comment on how North Carolina did."

Those who are commenting say North Carolina was very slow to respond, especially after research done by Duke's Dr. Edward Levin showed that pfiesteria caused serious learning impairment in rats. North Carolina now has a team investigating pfiesteria. Scientists are close to a test for the organism. Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, the researcher who discovered the fish killer, said people need to take notice.

"Just because a person doesn't fall out of a boat dead, just because a person doesn't faint doesn't mean there isn't a problem," said Burkholder. "Just consider some of the subtle but serious effects on human health we know about from cigarettes for example. It can creep up on a person over time and cause very major, very serious effects."

Scientists said they could have the pfiesteria test ready by early next year. It's a way of identifying the enemy. If the experts know exactly what they're fighting, they have a better chance of winning the fight.