The Jersey Shore Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has recently added an ocean illness form to their website to complement their BWTF water testing program. Joe Mairo, a Surfrider member and high school biology teacher that leads one of the Chapter's student run water testing programs, speaks to the local media about the new website and the chapter's experience with local incidences of illness caused by exposure to polluted water. Story below.
April 20, 2010, 5:31PM
WRECK POND -- It started with a small cut on his right leg.
A day after he went surfing in Asbury Park, Joe Mairo’s leg began to swell. Two days later, he was in the hospital with a serious staph infection.
Although Mairo has no proof, he can’t help but wonder if the cloudy water in which he was surfing that October day last year caused his infection.
For decades, surfers like Mairo have long suspected they’ve contracted all kinds of illnesses from their exposure to high levels of fecal coliform. Now they want to document their experiences on the internet to try to prove their theory.
"I remember sitting in the water and thinking ‘this is gross,’" the 32-year-old Bradley Beach resident said. "All those variables are out there for what I had, so it makes me a little unsure. (But) there are other cases where it’s really clear-cut."
Mairo said he can’t definitively link his illness — which turned out to be a MRSA infection — to the ocean water because he worked out at the same high school gym where wrestlers also had the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection.
But Mairo, a biology and environmental science teacher at Wall Township High School, said some of his students have had more convincing cases, including ear infections or nausea almost immediately after surfing.
As part of the class curriculum, Mairo and his students conduct water-quality testing on samples taken from the ocean in Sea Girt and Spring Lake near an outfall pipe that flows from nearby Wreck Pond. The pond has had so many instances of high levels of fecal coliform that the state Department of Environmental Protection automatically closes beaches near the pond in the summer after heavy rainfalls as a precaution.
The students’ testing, conducted during the months the local health departments don’t test, occasionally have shown high levels of the bacteria.
"We definitely see when water temperatures are up and we get a rain, the bacteria levels are high," he said.
So Mairo suggested the Surfrider Foundation, of which he is a member, start a website at njoceanillness.org to collect the experiences of surfers and other people who suspect they’ve gotten sick from exposure to high fecal coliform levels.
With the website, the group will be able to determine whether any patterns emerge and present the evidence to state and local officials, said John Weber, the foundation’s East Coast regional manager.
To weed out phony stories, the donors have to identify themselves and be willing to testify to their experiences, Mairo said.
Weber said the advocacy group has heard anecdotes for years about surfers’ illnesses, from sore throats to ear infections and even worse, but noted there haven’t been any attempts to document them
"State and local health departments aren’t collecting it, so the (New Jersey) chapter is going to,’’ he said.