June 26, 2002 at 5:28 PM EST - Updated July 3 at 4:15 PM
AKRON, Ohio (AP) - The Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland is polluted with viruses such as polio and hepatitis, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The main source of these pathogens is Akron's combined sewer system, which dumps nearly 3 billion gallons of runoff contaminated with human waste into the river each year, said Rebecca Bushon and Donna Myers, of the agency's Columbus office.
Experts have known for a long time that combined sewers and, to a lesser degree, storm-water runoff can trigger high E. coli bacteria counts in the river for 48 to 72 hours after heavy rains.
But the new study found viruses as well as disease-causing bacteria in most samples of the river water.
"It's a serious risk," Myers said.
Those most at risk from the pathogens in the Cuyahoga River are anglers, boaters and swimmers.
Dr. Steven Gordon, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, said assessing the risk to individuals along the Cuyahoga is "almost impossible to do."
Boaters are probably at greater risk from drinking alcohol or not wearing life jackets than from contracting a waterborne disease, he said.
The U.S. Geological Survey has been looking at bacteria levels in the river in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for years in an effort to determine whether the park can safely gauge when the water quality is safe for canoeing and swimming.
Recreational use of the river is not recommended because park officials can't predict when bacteria levels are low enough for safe use, said Brian McHugh, the park's chief ranger.
The study found infectious enteroviruses in 56 percent of the Cuyahoga River samples from five sites.
Such enteroviruses can cause a number of illnesses, including hepatitis A, polio, gastroenteritis, myocarditis and aseptic meningitis. Symptoms of these diseases range from mild nausea and diarrhea to paralysis and permanent liver damage.
Coliphage viruses, which attack E. coli bacteria, were found in 100 percent of the samples.
Bushon and Myers said eliminating 90 percent of Akron's combined sewers would make the river safer for recreational uses.
Getting rid of Akron's 37 combined sewers would cost $377 million and probably would double or triple sewer rates for residents of Akron and 15 surrounding communities.
City officials said Tuesday they had not seen the Geological Survey report and could not comment on it.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)