Tuesday, January 30, 2001

The Toxic Pfiesteria Complex: A Story of Water Pollution, Fish Kills and Human Health at the Science/Policy Border


Dr. Burkholder presented her work to an audience of approximately 130 members of the campus community in Illick 5.  She began her talk outlining the many people with whom she has worked and expressed gratitude to her co-workers and graduate students for their help and expertise.  After her introduction, she chronologically traced her work, from investigating the causes of several large estuarine fish kills in the Mid-Atlantic states to the identification of Pfiesteria as the causative agent.  She also discussed the impacts of Pfiesteria on human health and how it can compromise the immune system of humans. While Dr. Burkholder’s lab has done many studies on Pfiesteria, they are still working to understand what triggers the organism to become toxic in the presence of fresh fish.  She outlined the numerous safety measures they use in their laboratory, the difficulty of working with an organism that has a 27-stage lifecycle and how the timing of her analyses is critical to her work.

Dr Burkholder also spoke of the controversy surrounding her research.  She related receiving personal threats from swine industries when she discovered that effluent from their operations was linked to toxic Pfiesteria blooms.  She also described attempts by other scientists and interests to discredit and suppress her research.  Only when a large fish kill occurred in Chesapeake Bay and the governor of Maryland publicly called for further investigation, was Pfiesteria identified as the causative agent.  As a result of the controversy surrounding her research, Dr. Burkholder uses an extremely conservative approach when trying to determine the cause of a fish kill.  She outlined her methodology used to determine whether Pfiesteria is the causative agent, and described how all her lab results are verified by another independent laboratory.

Overall, Dr. Burkholder’s talk was quite fascinating the way science and policy became inextricably linked while studying an organism that no one can see.  Her slides contained an appropriate amount of text and contained numerous electrographs of microbes.  She also had slides containing newspaper text that outlined the relevance of her research.  Dr. Burkholder also interjected her personal experiences into the talk making the lecture filled with science, policy and interesting stories.

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