TITUSVILLE, FLORIDA - During the summer of 2020, the northern watershed of the Indian River Lagoon turned a bright iridescent green, which is a sign of an algal bloom. This once-diverse estuary, which was known as the "lagoon fishing capital of the world," has been affected by pollution for decades. The algal boom can produce toxins that harm both humans and animals, causing sickness.
The City of Titusville is located in the northernmost area of the Indian River Lagoon, where there have been numerous instances of wastewater overflows and system failures. This section of the 181-mile lagoon contains brackish water that is wind driven. Since there is no inflow, the water can become stagnant, leading to disasters such as chemicals washing into the waterways during the rainy season, septic tanks leaking, sewage spills, and other similar incidents.
The A. Max Brewer Bridge is located between Titusville City and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore Beach. The water flows beneath it, and it is a well-known destination for tourists visiting the space center. The region receives a large number of visitors due to this attraction. Titusville's sign has the motto "The Gateway to Nature and Space."
During the summer of 2020, Fight for Zero, a community-based nonprofit organization dedicated to safeguarding Florida's natural resources and researching the health effects of pollution on individuals, organized various "Demand Clean Water" protests on the A. Max Brewer Bridge to bring attention to the algal bloom in the water. The bright green color of the water was a clear indication that something was amiss.
A group of advocates from Brevard and Volusia County worked together to organize a bridge march across the state. Well-known environmental advocate Erin Brockovich promoted the event, and it helped bring attention to the pollution of local waterways. Tourists and locals crossing the bridge could enjoy the outdoors while raising awareness. The group used handmade signs and a sewage emoji costume during the march, streamed live on social media.
In December 2020, it was discovered that a pipe had burst at Sand Point, a community park in Titusville. The park is located at the bottom of the bridge and is often used as a viewing spot for rocket launches over the Indian River Lagoon. Over 7 million gallons of raw sewage were spilled due to the pipe break.
Following the pipe collapse, the banks of Sand Point Park in Titusville became littered with decaying fish and wildlife carcasses. Signs posted in the area warned that recent contamination due to a sewage main break could pose a safety risk to visitors.
Despite this, a Christmas event called Lights of Hope was allowed to occur next to the contaminated pond. Attendees were exposed to aerosolized waste particles that covered cars and were inhaled. The park was filled with the stench of sewage, and food trucks and hot chocolate booths were set up next to the pond. Some residents expressed concerns about the decision not to move the event to a safer location. The pond where the pipe broke connects to other retention ponds that lead to the Indian River Lagoon.
The Fight for Zero environmental investigative teams was informed by whistleblowers working for the water department that sewage was being directed to a pond in Space View Park. This was done to prevent the streets in Titusville's historic downtown area from being filled with human waste. To investigate this matter, the team decided to film the pipe connected to the memorial pond, which is linked to the Indian River Lagoon. There were concerns that sewage was being released into the Indian River Lagoon from two locations. However, accessing the pipe was challenging as it was fenced off and had no trespassing signs. Therefore, advocates had to take kayaks on the water to view the location.
The City of Titusville claims that the sewage spill was contained and did not substantially impact the Indian River Lagoon. However, citizen scientists conducted an analysis of E. Coli and toxins, revealing harmful bacteria in the lagoon at the time of the spill.
The Fight for Zero environmental investigative teams interviewed nearby residents who attended the Christmas event and became ill, documented the spill, and attended city council meetings to raise health concerns. This process took several months to complete.
Stan Johnston, a resident who has lived in the area for a long time, took swift action to alert the community about a sewage spill. He created handmade signs and placed them around the park where the spill occurred. Additionally, Johnston attended every city council meeting and persistently raised concerns about the danger to citizens' health. He reported that people he knew were experiencing headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Due to his efforts, the city was eventually motivated to put up its signage to warn the public.
The Fight for Zero teams in the field faced health issues during their work. Many people contacted them with sinus infections, vomiting, and other concerns. Shockingly, three individuals contracted MRSA after swimming in the water due to a sewage spill and had to visit the emergency room. Unfortunately, the city council ignored these health concerns and advised residents to see a doctor only if it was severe. The pandemic and healthcare costs made it more challenging for people to seek help. Healthcare providers do not generally know how to handle these unique exposures to environmental hazards.
In 2021, members of Fight for Zero suggested educating the community about harmful algal blooms and cyanobacteria by going door-to-door. However, city council members and the Chairman of Parrish Medical Center were uneasy with this approach. Scientific tests revealed the presence of harmful bacteria, which led the Department of Health to post a small sign at Parrish Park warning of toxins in the water. Unfortunately, the sign was hidden and unnoticed, resulting in unsuspecting tourists and families swimming in the water without knowing the potential dangers.
A mother has filed a lawsuit after discovering that her child was exposed to harmful bacteria while paddleboarding and swimming in the Indian River Lagoon at Sand Point Park in Titusville, Florida. The incident occurred after more than 7 million gallons of raw sewage spilled due to a busted pipe and leaking waste. The family was not aware of the situation. Shortly after January 2, 2021, the child began experiencing back pain that eventually spread to their legs. The concerned mother took her child to Viera Hospital, where they were transferred to Nemours Children's Hospital for treatment. The child underwent various treatments, including a blood transfusion and a spinal tap, which revealed a bacterial infection.
During the hospital visit, the physician treating the boy disclosed that the sewage spill from the City of Titusville probably caused the bacterial infection he was experiencing. The type of bacteria that triggers this infection is commonly present in sewage.
Unfortunately, the situation worsened when another individual swimming near Sand Point Park was admitted to the hospital for the same bacterial infection. This incident confirmed that the City's sewage spill caused the bacterial infection. It's important to note that we don't have any information on patients who visited local hospitals, like Parrish Medical Center, during the sewage spill.
The boy has undergone extensive medical treatments, spent over two months in the hospital, has received over six rounds of chemotherapy treatments, is still unable to walk, and will have lifelong medical issues due to this infection.
In December 2022, the City of Titusville filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. They argued that as a governmental entity, they don't have a duty to warn the general public and are immune from such lawsuits. The case will be heard by Judge Scott Blaue on April 5, 2023, at the Moore Justice Center.
Katie Perez, Bill Klein, Elizabeth Baker, Kay Onge, Becca McCullough, and Laurilee Thompson, environmental advocates and residents of Titusville, documented the sewage spill and expressed their concerns in several city council meetings. Despite their multiple requests to shut down the park, conduct environmental tests on the ponds, and dredge them, their suggestions were declined. However, the city did install floating wetlands in the retention ponds, which helps manage stormwater runoff and protect downstream water by absorbing nutrients.
Residents had difficulty getting answers to their concerns as their inquiries were passed from one agency to another. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) referred residents to the Florida Department of Health (FDOH), which directed them to other agencies. This lack of action resulted in the community becoming ill and a child's life being permanently affected.
Several simple measures could have been taken to increase safety. These include placing large warning signs in multiple areas, sending a mailer or adding a message to residents' water bills, publicizing all testing by agencies and the city on their website, using social media to warn of the dangers of swimming, educating the public on harmful bacteria such as harmful algal blooms, cyanobacteria, and bacteria found in raw sewage, installing additional turbidity curtains, collaborating with the Department of Health to collect illness data, and blocking off access to dangerous swimming locations.
In 2022 the City of Titusville requested funding from the state for the Osprey Water Reclamation Plant. They asked for $500,000 for a nutrient removal upgrade.
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Health Effects of Sewage Exposure Physical contact is not the only way sewage can harm you. There’s a potential for aerosolization of viruses in wastewater systems. Health effects among plant workers were assessed in 2013, and it found that most sewage treatment plant staff were adversely affected due to bioaerosols inhalation. Major observed health effects were fatigue, dizziness, eye irritation, and abdominal pain. Another Bioaerosols emission survey was done in 2015 and found one worker was hospitalized for a week with an MRSA infection of his face and sinuses. Other documented illnesses involved such things as pinkeye, intestinal infection from the Giardia parasite, hepatitis, and illness from E. coli.
Sewage contains a host of toxic chemicals that can kill fish and threaten human health. Some of the harmful chemicals found in sewage are Campylobacter jejuni bacteria, Salmonella, Escherichia coli or E. coli, Listeria bacteria, Cryptosporidium parasite, Adenovirus (commonly found in sewage and causes respiratory infections like pneumonia, croup, and bronchitis. It is also known to cause eye infections, such as conjunctivitis, Norovirus, and Rotavirus.
Manatee Unusual Mortality Event (UME)
One month after the sewage spill incident, deceased manatees began washing ashore. In March of 2021, a Usually Mortality Event (UME) for the Atlantic Florida Manatee was declared. Fight For Zero was pivotal in pushing for the UME through persistent advocacy, grassroots campaigns, partnering with organizations, involving stakeholders, and working with the local community to get national awareness.
Sources and Additional Reading:
Bacterial-aerosol emission from wastewater treatment plant: https://www.tandfonline.com/.../19443994.2013.769668...
Study in the onsite wastewater industry has implications for treatment plant employees: https://www.tpomag.com/.../wastewater_pathogen_risks_are...
Exposure Risk of Wastewater: https://www.sciencedirect.com/.../abs/pii/S0147651318311540
The inhalation of these agents, aerosolized from the wastewater treatment process, is recognized as an occupational hazard, but the risk for nearby populations cannot be neglected: https://www.frontiersin.org/.../bioaerosol-emission...
The aerosols harboring microorganisms and viruses released from the wastewater system into the air have greatly threatened the health and safety of human beings: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-020-11297-8
Viral contamination proved to be quite widespread and detectable even in the presence of low levels of bacterial contamination: https://www.sciencedirect.com/.../abs/pii/S004313549900264X
COVID-19 virus can survive a long time on wastewater and aerosol: https://scholar.google.com/scholar...
HB 4159: Provides $500,000 appropriation for the Titusville Osprey Water Reclamation Plant Nutrient Removal Upgrade. Link: https://www.myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Bills/billsdetail.aspx?BillId=74987
HB 4727: Provides $500,000 appropriation for the Titusville Enhanced Drinking Water Treatment. Link: https://www.myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Bills/billsdetail.aspx?BillId=75375
At least 38 million gallons of sewage or partially treated sewage were released in 221 incidents in Brevard County since 2010. No volume estimate was provided for 21 of the reported spills, so the actual volume is likely higher.