What's killing coral near Key West? Study points to human waste
Photos from research show the white blotches, caused by bacteria from waste, that appear on coral in the Florida Keys.
August 18th, 2011
11:01 AM ET

What's killing coral near Key West? Study points to human waste

Human feces making their way through wastewater facilities and into the ocean are passing along a white pox disease-causing bacterium that's killing Elkhorn coral near Key West, Florida, a new study says.

"These bacteria do not come from the ocean; they come from us," said James W. Porter, a University of Georgia ecology professor, adding that mankind has a responsibility to respond and save a massive area around the Florida Keys.

Porter and his colleagues say the study for the first time gives evidence of a new way of spreading diseases. Usually, bacteria are transmitted from wildlife to humans, for example, in the case of Avian flu. But here, the researchers' findings, which were published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, show that diseases can in some cases be passed on from humans and affect wildlife to the point where it causes a population decline.

When they began studying corals, researchers learned the bacterium Serratia marcescens was the cause of white pox. The bacterium is mostly associated with infections usually acquired in hospitals by newborns or immune-compromised adults. It can be responsible for a variety of infections, from meningitis to pneumonia.

"Bacteria from humans kill corals - that's the bad news," Porter said. "But the good news is that we can solve this problem with advanced wastewater treatment facilities."

Upgrades to these facilities under way in Key West are important, he said.

"This problem is not like hurricanes, which we can't control. We can do something about this one," Porter said.

The disease caused by the waste leads to white blotches on coral. The blotches appear when bacteria kills the top layer of coral tissue, exposing the white limestone skeleton of the coral.

"We are killing the goose that lays the golden egg, and we've got the smoking gun to prove it," Porter said.

soundoff (118 Responses)
  1. Frank Stevens III

    Sorry, Rick Perry say that there is nothing wrong with environment, in fact, he wants to do away with the evil EPA.
    So if Rick Perry says there is nothing wrong, this article is lying.

    August 18, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. gung hoe

    The SEAS are barometers of the world we live in AND if you think we can live with unhealthy oceans you are not vey smart

    August 18, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  3. banasy©

    Then it must follow that Rick Perry isn't very smart, correct?

    August 18, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. leeintulsa

    @banasy: he prays for all his answers.. Kinda goes without saying lol

    August 18, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
  5. banasy©

    You've answered my question!

    August 18, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  6. banasy©

    I am suffering from fat finger syndrome today, leeintulsa.

    August 18, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  7. leeintulsa

    @banasy: quite alright, i've been called way worse lol

    August 18, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. banasy©


    Glad I didn't say Peeintulsa.
    No watergames for me, thanks.

    August 18, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. bud

    The World's Largest Septic Tank. Our oceans.

    August 18, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Living Coral

    Like they're going to treat corals any better than they treat each other. Get a clue, everyone.

    August 18, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Living Coral

    One particular floating heap of garbage can be found in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. What's so 'particular' about it? It's size. This floating monument is the size of Texas.

    August 18, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • leeintulsa

      I thought it was the pacific, and it was the size of texas a few years ago, when the story came out.. Maybe another in the atlantic? Sounds logical..

      August 18, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Living Coral

    The Atlantic blob was spawned when NYC began loading it's trash on barges and dumping it in the ocean over a hundred years ago. It grew to the size of Colorado during the industrial revolution, and cheap plastic made from cheap oil China has been burning to make cheap plasti-crud for Americans has made it bi/ as texas now.

    August 19, 2011 at 7:23 am | Report abuse |
  13. Sportfan

    Again man shows he is the biggest threat to Earth and life in general. NO other species on this palnet can be the cause of destryoing it's very habitat like we are doing !! A good asteroid would do alot of good right now,

    August 19, 2011 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
  14. Queen Lattice

    how do they KNOW its human feces? maybe its too much sunscreen being washed off the nasty tourists that's causing it

    August 19, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5