Riverkeepers awaiting test results to determine bacteria levels in Waccamaw

The Waccamaw River swells beneath bridges on S.C. 9 in northern Horry County on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015.
The Waccamaw River swells beneath bridges on S.C. 9 in northern Horry County on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. Janet Blackmon Morgan jblackmon@thesunnews.com

Bacteria is present in Waccamaw River flood waters, but officials won’t know just how much until test results are available next week.

“Every time there’s a flood or major rain event you will always see higher levels of bacteria in the water in certain locations,” Emma Boyer, Waccamaw Riverkeeper said.

The river was still in major flood stage at 14.8 feet Friday morning, but weather authorities expect it to dip into moderate flood levels early next week.

Samples to determine bacteria levels in the Waccamaw have been taken by volunteers and the Waccamaw Riverkeeper’s team, and results are expected to be in early next week.

This bacteria comes from animal and human waste, which gets swept into the river in run off water that’s been in community areas, scientists said.

River experts said two possibilities exist when it comes to bacteria levels in the Waccamaw River after a flood, and the recent tests funded in part by Horry County, along with samples taken by riverkeeper program volunteers, will soon show just how much is there.

While bacteria levels are usually up after a significant rain event, one outcome of recent testing could reveal a high and dangerous concentration of bacteria in the river.

If results show dangerous levels, county officials will do follow up testing and notify the public if there is a health risk involved.

The other likelihood is what scientists and officials hope for, which is that bacteria levels have been watered down from flooding.

“It’s also possible that the amount of water that went into the river was so large that bacteria levels were diluted and don’t pose a health risk,” Dr. Susan Libes, environmental quality lab program director at Coastal Carolina University, said.

Libes said this was the case in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd, which took the river to its record crest of 17.8 feet.

Libes also said the river is not a suitable environment for bacteria like e. coli, which thrives in the intestines of animals, but shrivels in sunlight and doesn’t seem to like organic matter from swamps commonly found in the Waccamaw.

Experts said either possibility could be true for the river; however, Boyer said she thought testing would show a mixture of results with more levels of bacteria present around urban areas while other more remote spots along the river will be cleaner.

“Locations will respond differently,” she said.

Areas of flood water near septic tanks, sewer lines, and animal waste will always have more bacteria present, along with potentially dangerous debris and chemicals. Scientists and health officials have continuously warned residents about the dangers of swimming in or playing in flood waters.

“You don’t want to be drinking the water or playing in it because the water has picked up a lot of things,” Boyer said.

Waccamaw Riverkeeper staff and scientists collected samples on Wednesday and Thursday.

Volunteers with Coastal Carolina University's Waccamaw Watershed Academy and Waccamaw Riverkeeper’s volunteers also took samplings along the river on Wednesday.

The volunteer program is made up of around 50 volunteers who dot the river from Lake Waccamaw to the Sampit River, with volunteers ranging from home-schooled and high school students to retirees, all of whom are trained in how to acquire samples. Their routine bimonthly tests help county officials determine the health of the river.

“Our volunteers are very, very good and dedicated,” Libes said.

Preliminary testing completed by these volunteers determined that the river’s oxygen levels are seriously low for river wildlife and that the acidity levels are hazardously high for them.

Libes said oxygen and acidity levels are routinely measured, along with various other river elements. There is an aquatic criterion set for the river, but right now those levels are not meeting the standard because of the historic flooding.

Libes said flood waters cause organic matter from nearby swamps to flow into the river, and when it decomposes it lowers oxygen levels, increases acidity, and further darkens the already-murky waters of the Waccamaw.

It will take time for the river to return to its normal balance.

River experts also said the bacteria would be naturally flushed out over time as well.

“There’s nothing we can instantaneously do,” Libes said of the problematic levels of oxygen and acidity in the Waccamaw.

She said as a result of the lower oxygen levels fish will swim to places in the river with higher levels and may also visit the surface to breathe to some in. She said there are fresh water mussels that are found only in the Waccamaw, and their shells are at risk for dissolving from the high acid levels.

While this acidity level is dangerous to them, it wouldn’t affect humans.

Although the Waccamaw habitat is strained by flooding, Libes said the ecosystem is used to experiencing environmental stress and will hopefully naturally sustain and correct itself over time.

County and healthcare officials have also been concerned about bacteria, especially tetanus, in the river and flood waters and urged all cleanup workers to get a tetanus shot.

Dr. Dennis Rhoades, regional medical director of Doctor’s Care offices, said other common bacteria found in flood waters, including e. coli typical amoebas and parasites, can cause skin and gastrointestinal problems.

He said symptoms of infections from these bacteria are typically stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.

“Go see a doctor fairly quickly if you’ve been in flood waters and start to get sick because these illnesses can get serious very quickly,” he said.

Horry and Georgetown clinics have seen some cases of skin infections from people who have been in flood waters, Rhoades said, but so far no cases involving intestinal issues. Infections are more likely to take hold in people who have immune systems compromised by conditions like diabetes or circulation problems.

He recommended people involved in flood cleanup efforts thoroughly wash with soap and water and get contaminated clothing off quickly and even wash it separately. Anyone with open sores should not get in the water at all.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has offered free tetanus shots at mobile clinics all week in Florence, Georgetown, Lexington, Richland and Williamsburg counties and hopes to be able to offer more in the weeks to come.

“The vaccine is recommended if it's been 10 years or more since your last tetanus vaccination or you have experienced an injury and your shot is more than five years old,” Derrec Becker, DHEC spokesman said in a press release.

DHEC workers are also offering no-cost tetanus vaccinations for South Carolinians affected by flooding at by appointment at state health department locations.

Healthcare officials said tetanus is a potentially life-threatening medical condition caused by exposure to bacteria. Tetanus bacteria are usually found in soil, dust and manure.

People involved in flood cleanup efforts are at an increased risk for wounds, which can allow bacteria to enter the body.

DHEC officials also warned of the likely risk mold growth could have on residents as flood waters are receding.

“Mold can cause serious health problems as well as structural damage to a home when a property has experienced flooding,” Becker said.

Officials also said mold can cause respiratory problems, burning or watery eyes, skin irritations or nervous system disorders such as headaches and memory loss.

DHEC authorities recommended thoroughly drying out an area and letting in fresh air to help reduce mold problems.

DHEC officials said to remove moldy materials, residents should use common household cleaners and safely use bleach.

Becker also recommended wearing gloves, a mask, long sleeves, pants and boots or work shoes when cleaning up flood waters.

Elizabeth Townsend: 843-626-0217, @TSN_etownsend

Know more

Schedule a no-cost tetanus shot vaccination at a health department, 1-800-868-0404.

Learn about river sampling data, http://www.coastal.edu/wwa/vm/wr.