When Georgia Southern University nursing students presented a study of health problems reported by people along the Ogeechee River, Bryan County residents Betty Moore and Spencer Moore Sr. made a point of attending.
The Moores’ main home is just outside Pembroke. But their son Steven, 53, resides on a 13-acre tract the family owns on the river at Gobar Landing in Bulloch County. After being treated for earlier problems that included double vision and headaches, Steven Moore was diagnosed last November with a brain tumor.
He is dying, his parents told everyone at Saturday’s presentation. About 60 people filled the community room at Statesboro Regional Library to hear the results of the nursing students’ research.
The students emphasized that their study was a limited one, based on anonymous health surveys. Its results, they said, point to a need for further study. The surveys were returned by 76 Bulloch County residents who lived near or had visited the river since the record May 2011 fish kill.
“We just hope that further research will be done and this will be used as inspiration to follow up, because this is a pilot study. It is a student, pilot study,” said the study’s lead author, senior nursing student Lynsey Johnson.
But Betty Moore says her son believed that there was a link between the river’s declining health and his own even before his cancer was diagnosed.
“My son has driven me crazy with, ‘Mama, do something about this river. It’s killing me. Mama, you’ve got to do something,’ and I said, ‘What in the world can I do? I don’t have any money. I can’t fight them,’” she recalled.
Mrs. Moore said she is convinced that what her son has been saying is true and she wants him to know she is trying to do something.
“He knows he’s dying and every time he says, ‘Mama, it doesn’t matter what you do now; it’s too late for me,’ and I say, ‘Well, son, it might not be too late for somebody,’” she said.
Betty and Spencer Moore have owned the river property since 1984. Steven Moore lived in their house next to the river until 1991, when he built a home of his own on the same tract, his mother says.
Mrs. Moore also describes health problems she herself has experienced, including spinal problems and neuropathy. These, she said, began when she lived in her home at the river full-time in 1991-’93.
She sought to learn more about the health effects of formaldehyde after hearing that the chemical was found in the Ogeechee in the wake of the 2011 fish kill. Speaking at the presentation, the Moores also named several people who lived near the river who have died of cancer in recent years.
Symptoms, not causes
However, the GSU study has not established a cause-and-effect relationship between chemicals in the river and any health problems. It wasn’t designed to.
“This was strictly a correlational study,” said Chelsea Allen, the nursing student who introduced the presentation. “We didn’t have the time or resources to do a really in-depth cause-and-effect.”
The students’ analysis did show that, of those surveyed, the closer people’s homes were to the river, the more symptoms they reported. In examining the results, students focused on categories of acute symptoms, not specific chronic diseases.
Pulmonary symptoms, ear, nose and throat symptoms and neurological symptoms were the most commonly reported.
But the student researchers found no correlation between the number of symptoms reported and two other key questions on their survey: time spent swimming in the river and the number of fish consumed from its waters.
Students distributed the surveys at Ogeechee Riverkeeper meetings and other community events and door-to-door in neighborhoods near the river.
All five student researchers are seniors in GSU’s Bachelor of Science program in nursing. They began the study last fall as their project for a nursing research course and continued it this semester in their community health nursing course.
Students knew they were picking a hot topic but were still surprised at the level of interest in the presentation, Johnson said.
Record fish kill
Last May 19, fish started turning up dead in the Ogeechee downstream from King America Finishing, a plant in Screven County that applies dyes and coatings to fabrics. Eventually, the count of dead fish topped 38,000, making it the largest fish kill on record for a Georgia river.
Initially, the state Environmental Protection Division found that the fish died of infections with columnaris bacteria. But EPD officials also said that stress factors such as low flows and chemicals had weakened the fish and triggered the outbreak.
A June 3 EPD report revealed the discovery of formaldehyde, ammonia and hydrogen peroxide in the river downstream from King Finishing. Formaldehyde levels were five times the chronic exposure limit for aquatic life and approaching the acute exposure limit, according to numbers included in the nursing students’ presentation.
The EPD eventually issued a consent order than requires King America Finishing Inc. to fund $1 million of environmental projects on the river.
The nursing students directed their survey to Bulloch County residents over age 18 who live near or had visited the river. They were asked about acute symptoms and whether they had been diagnosed or treated for listed conditions since May 19. Of the 76 respondents, 53 were male, 23 were female, and the age range was 21-78 with an average age of 48.
Johnson displayed a graph of the number of acute symptoms that individuals reported versus the distances of their homes from the river. Many of those reporting the most symptoms were grouped near the zero axis for distance from the river, and a curve showed symptoms tending to taper off with distance.
“In other words, the closer the subjects live to the river, the more acute-symptoms were reported,” Johnson said, reading from a slide.
The students also noted their study’s limitations, including the small sample size, the fact that most of the respondents were men, and that children and pregnant women had been intentionally excluded. Another admitted limitation was the lack of a control group. In other words, the survey did not, for comparison, look at people upstream or at others who did not live near or visit the river.
The nursing students made these shortcomings the basis of their recommendations for further research.
They also provided some “community education,” advising people not to eat fish or swim in water “unless deemed safe,” to keep up with river water testing results at the EPD website, to have their well water tested periodically and to report any symptoms to a healthcare provider or health department.
Although they showed slides of their findings, the students did not release printed copies. They said their study will remain unpublished until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.
No representatives of King America Finishing identified themselves or spoke at the presentation.
A reporter’s call to the company’s main number Friday and a specific request for comment left Tuesday on company President Mike Beasley’s voice mail had not resulted in a reply by press time.