Nine hours after rain moved through the area and caused sewers to overflow into the Allegheny River, Pittsburgh Triathlon organizers opted to proceed with the swim portion of Sunday morning's race, a decision that appears to contradict the race's policy for determining safe conditions.
Some athletes with knowledge of the sewer overflow expressed concern over possibly unsafe waters on race morning. At least one of the approximately 200 competitors who completed the 1,500-meter swim was treated in a hospital on Monday for diarrhea and vomiting.
According to the policy on the triathlon's website, the swim leg “will be canceled if the river samples from the week prior to the event exceed 250 cfu/100 ml, and a rain event which triggered a river recreation advisory in the 24 hours prior to the race remains in place at 6 a.m. on the race morning. Further definition of the cancellation criteria will be developed based on our course specific sampling over the next few months.”
In addition to the sewer overflow, water testing results provided by the race organizers showed a 900 cfu/100 ml count on Monday morning, less than a week before the race. (Cfu/ml refers to colony-forming units and is an estimate of the number of viable bacteria or fungal cells in a sample.)
John Stephen, cofounder of Friends of the Riverfront, said the policy was written in the spring before the organization began a more extensive practice of collecting and testing water samples, including analysis of how the river responds immediately after rain events.
“The whole program was new, and the motivation was to try to get better information for the competitors,” said Stephen, whose group works to reclaim and restore the Pittsburgh region's riverfronts for public use.
Stephen said organizers based their decision to allow the swim on their analysis of river conditions conducted throughout the summer, the decrease in bacteria counts throughout the week, that the sewer overflow stopped at 9:30 p.m. Saturday and that visual inspections by the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (Alcosan) on Sunday morning confirmed there were no active overflows upstream of the race.
During active sewer overflows, which can carry raw sewage and garbage into the river, Alcosan issues an alert advising river users to limit contact with the water. In the 24 to 48 hours after an overflow stops, Alcosan lists the conditions as yellow and recommends limiting contact with river water.
Sarah Quesen of Squirrel Hill coaches swimmers in open-water conditions but won't take them into the river unless Alcosan identifies the status as green, meaning the area is under dry conditions.
Aware of the overflow the previous evening and of similar conditions that sickened racers the past two years, Quesen arrived at the North Shore to volunteer on Sunday and expressed her concerns to race officials.
“No one was told the overflow happened in the first place,” she said. “It's great it ceased and (was) no longer ejecting sewage and runoff, but it just happened.”
Todd Mowry, 48, of Squirrel Hill knew of the overflow and arrived at the race expecting the swim to be canceled. He suspected officials might change the format to a run-bike-run and chose not to compete when they announced the swim would go on as planned.
“They said the water quality is good,” Mowry said. “They said if you have concerns, come and look at the bacteria count number on the board.”
Triathlon organizers studied the river for months before the race. A robotic kayak from Platypus, a Squirrel Hill company, collected samples from under the Fort Duquesne Bridge. Platypus collected samples after storms and from July 31 through Sunday.
The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority tested the samples for fecal coliforms, a group of bacteria that includes E. coli, said Christian Westbrook, lab manager at PWSA.
The test takes 24 hours because colonies of bacteria need to grow on petri dishes to be counted.
The triathlon and PWSA intended to keep the results internal, using them to help make decisions but not sharing the fecal coliform counts with participants. PWSA's lab can perform the analysis but is not certified for the test, Westbrook said.
But the data became public to participants and on social media.
A photo uploaded to the Pittsburgh Triathlon and Adventure Race Facebook page at 6:27 a.m. Sunday shows the board with a water sample count of 255 under Friday's date, 210 for Saturday and 185 for Sunday. The photo is accompanied by the caption, “The water quality results are in and this morning's swim for the Pittsburgh Triathlon is on! Have a great race, triathletes!”
“That was intended for race organizers only, not intended for public knowledge,” Westbrook said.
The board incorrectly identified the counts as E. coli, not fecal coliform, for which Stephen apologized this week, and the numbers did not accurately reflect Sunday's count but the previous day's. The actual count Sunday, not available until Monday, was 240.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at UPMC, said swallowing water with bacteria in it puts people at risk for vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal issues. Fecal coliforms not only include E. coli, which can make humans sick, but are indicators of other pathogens and feces-borne viruses and bacteria, Adalja said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection warns people to use caution when in a river with counts of more than 200. The Erie County Health Department issues an advisory for its beaches when counts top 235. The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission uses 240 for the Ohio River.
Adalja thought the triathlon's threshold of 250 was responsible. He said risk of illness tends to increase as fecal coliform counts reach that level.
“Any time you swim in any kind of body of water, you're putting yourself at risk,” Adalja said. “There's going to be fecal coliforms in the water no matter what, because we live in bacteria. We live in each other's feces.”
Race participant Brendan McKinley, 22, of Malvern said he heard something about a board on Sunday morning, but that those numbers would not have meant much to him anyway. After returning home to eastern Pennsylvania and falling violently ill on Monday, he told the emergency department staff at Paoli Hospital that he'd been swimming in the river a day earlier.
“They were pretty confident that's what it was from,” said McKinley, who recently graduated from Pitt and is a member of the university's triathlon club.
McKinley acknowledged it's a hazard of the sport.
“You're swimming in places where you don't need to be told it's dirty water,” he said. “You just do it and hope to swim fast enough to where it won't affect you. My friend is the fastest swimmer I know, and he did it and feels absolutely fine.”
PWSA and triathlon officials met on Wednesday to discuss confusion over the water-quality testing and reporting. Officials are preparing a post-race survey for participants and volunteers. Stephen hopes the dialogue over water quality will continue.
“I'd like this to be a year-round issue,” he said. “Think about not only open-water swimmers but stand-up paddleboarders, kayakers, rowers, fishermen. We should all have reason to care.”
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