BOOKS: And the Waters Turned to Blood

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1997:

And the Waters Turned to Blood:
The Ultimate Biological Threat
by Rodney Barker
Simon & Schuster (1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY
10020), 1997. 352 pages, hardcover, $24.00

It’s a shame how this book
has been hyped. “Deadlier than
Ebola!” trumpets one press release,
building expectations of a Creightonesque
biological thriller. But
Pfiesteria piscicida is no fiction, and
frightening though the microorganism
may be, it doesn’t hold a candle
to the real horror of its discovery––
that without the tenacity of one outspoken
scientist, the world would
still be unaware of it.

To this day no one knows
where pfiesteria came from, whether
it was imported, mutated or occurred
naturally in North Carolina waters.
But there it was, waiting to be discovered
in the massive fish kills
plaguing the state. Fishers knew
something was wrong when fish
acted strangely and died, often with
flesh eaten off their bones. But state
agencies, underfunded and poorly
equipped, tended to accept pat
answers instead of investigating.
It took an outsider, new to
the state and only peripherally
involved in water quality research, to
find and classify p f i e s t e r i a . R o d n e y
Barker is most effective when he follows
JoAnn Burkholder’s discovery
from its beginnings in a cramped lab
shared with an uncooperative colleague
to her ongoing struggle to
fund further studies. Along the way
she was subjected to slander and
obstruction that might have daunted a
less determined young scientist.
Brash and brilliant, Burkholder
comes across as the epitome of a
modern American heroine.
Her story, however, has
no easy, happy ending. The local
powers-that-be refuse to confront the
probable causes of pfiesteria proliferation,
which occur time and again in
conjunction with huge sewage and
manure spills. Perhaps some scientists
have difficulty comprehending
an organism that manifests itself in so
many different forms. Or perhaps, as
Barker suggests, state agencies are
beholden to the very industries polluting
the water––especially the politically
powerful pork industry.
Likewise there is still considerable
debate about p f i e s t e r i a’ s
effects on human health, despite
severe reactions among those working
in Burkholder’s labs. Anecdotal
evidence from fishermen has also
been summarily dismissed as the
state struggles to maintain its reputation
as a coastal tourist mecca (even
at times omitting to post notices of
manure spills upstream of resort
beaches). To this day no one has any
idea how many cases diagnosed as
Alzheimers or multiple sclerosis may
be attributable to Pfiesteria piscicida.
If all this wasn’t bad
enough, Barker briefly touches on a
few other horrors. There was, for
instance, a top-secret government
program interested in p f i e s t e r i a’ s
neurotoxic effects. And the killer
dinoflagellate has already spread
beyond North Carolina’s waterways,
causing huge fish kills in Maryland
as this is published But the ultimate
horror is how we can so blithely
harm the environment without awareness
of the consequences. Like a
Frankenstein with a whole planet for
a laboratory, we won’t know until too
late how many other latent monsters
we’ve unleashed.
––Cathy Young Czapla

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