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. banasy©

    What a sh!tty subject.
    I hope they can come up with better water treatments.
    It would be a shame for the coral to die out because we crap so much...

    August 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • bobcat2u


      August 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • bobcat2u

      Got distracted and didn't finis my post. Lol at your headline. Serious about the damege mankind is causing.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bellabiv Devot

    Deart coral: Eat sh– and die!

    August 18, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  3. JoeMahma


    Human beings are a virus. We'll destroy the natural balance to the point where our own survival is threatened because we're too arrogant and short sighted to even see what we're doing.


    August 18, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lem

      That's why I always say, the planet Earth will be in a much better place if the entire human race was exterminated. I will always stand by this thinking.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin Roberts

      Such reasonable thinking. Who gives a crap about corral? Kill yourselves if you're so ashamed of being human.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  4. joeblow

    I like corals..i like puppies..i like to eat puppies...but not corals

    August 18, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  5. aubrey

    This is why everyone should only have two biological children. Just replace you and your spouse. The world can only hold so many more people before we wipe out our resources.

    If you have two children, you will have more time and money which will benefit the children. Your family will have less stress and your children will be raised in a much more rich environment. If you want more than two, consider adopting so you don't continue to add to the population. Population control starts with you and how many offspring you produce! 🙂

    August 18, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • jb


      People in Western countries are already having, on average, FEWER than two children per woman. The West needs MORE children, not fewer, or it will eventually collapse. The real population problem is in certain Third World countries - in particular, the biggest part of the problem is sub-Saharan Africa. Those are the people you need to convince, not the readers of CNN's web site!

      August 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • CommonSense

      I dunno jb, I see plenty of ignorant Americans who think it's their "right" to have as many kids as they want. and they do. Not to mention the (mainly urban) issue of rampant child bearing with multiple partners, and none sticking around to be Dads to their many offspring.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plural of ignoramus = "JB and Common Sense"

      What an incredibly ignorant, racist, and bigoted thing to say that "rampant child bearing" is a "mainly urban" and/or "sub-Saharan" issue. Both of your racist tendencies are exposed in your shared positions that overpopulation is an exclusive problem of urban blacks and/or Africans, and you offer such offensiveness with no actual evidence to support your claims. JB further contends that the "West" (i.e. white societies) need to have more children before it collapses. The clear implication is that you worry that the sum population total of the African continent outnumbering predominantly white societies will result in those latter societies collapsing. I've no idea how you would begin to connect those dots, but however you justify that notion in your mind, it remains a completely offensive and indefensible suggestion.

      JB and Common Sense: You should both be ashamed of yourselves and embarrassed that your ludicrous and racist opinions are now a part of the public record.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • jb

      Wow, some people just have a really bad reaction to the truth! But like it or not, everything I said was entirely true.

      It is TRUE that birthrates in Western countries are extremely low. This has been true for years, and has been widely reported in the media, so go look it up. (And remember, we are talking about averages. While some Americans in urban areas may have a lot of children by multiple partners, many other Americans have no children at all). It is also TRUE that birthrates in sub-Saharan Africa remain extremely high. In fact, the UN just recently revised their world population projections upward because of this. These things are TRUE, and because of that they are important. The fact that you think the truth is racist is important to nobody but you.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
  6. George

    What about other animals, birds and fish ... when they drop their kids off at the pool ... the coral loves it, it's just when humans drop their kids off at the pool, the coral hates it ?!?

    August 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • sbp

      Uh, no, the scientists are deliberately lying. Does that make more sense to you. I'm going to guess that it's far more likely that fish feces are very different chemically and biologically from human feces. They live in water, for one thing. I'm also going to guess that most bears, deer, mice and other mammals, whose feces might resemble humans', don't flush their feces down the toilet into a sewag treatment plant that eventually dumps into the ocean. As I recall, a Bear poops in the woods.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Professor

      The concentration levels are what matter. Human and animal feces are not tremendously different in composition. It's just that several million people defecate into Miami Bay. Besides being far fewer of them, as a reader pointed out deer, mice, etc don't flush their poop down the toilet into water (that by the way has been treated to be drinkable, so now we can crap in it), and then send it out to sea after 'primary' (get the chunks out) and 'secondary' (digest some of the really gross stuff and take out some nitrogen and phosphorous).

      August 18, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. jaggy88

    we are destroying our world with our waste we suck!!!

    August 18, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. dutspup

    So why are they dumping in the ocean anyway, we dont do that in Florida. Turds can be used as a fuel source.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kindasorta

      It could be coming from cruise ships.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. mdmooser

    Too bad, humans had so much potential but are slowly destroying themselves, one planet is not enough. Imagine ......................what the oceans were like in the early 1900's. Industrial Revolution and now it's 2011 and look at the oceans. Next stop 2111 and.................................what oceans? From cess pool to shining cess pool. In the end nature will win, who knows, ebola or some other permutation not heard of yet and then the eco system will cleanse itself of us. Sad.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. SepticSam

    Quite a bit of raw human waste comes from commercial and pleasure boats.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ronvan

    LEM: Have to agree. Humans are the "superior" animals on planet earth, but we have absolutely no sense, compassion, or concern how WE are destroying the planet.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. chillipepper

    I'm hearing alot of people being brainwashed by Agenda 21 on here. I see it's in the works. Head this type of thinking on other pages. Stuff like humans are no better than any other life. Poor young minds being controlled

    August 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
  13. gung hoe

    To plural of ignoramus Dont let 2 bozos like them bother my guess is they are a couple suburban youths that will be back in school

    August 18, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. leeintulsa

    I know a guy, white as the driven snow. Manchester, new hampshire. 15 kids. It's a catholic thing. In his words, he will take what god gives him. He also said after the first 4 or 5, they take care of themselves. And i've seen it. Making dinner is an assembly line.. They break into groups of 2 or 3, get carts, and fan out across the store.

    His eldest son is well on his way – 3 so far. His eldest daughters are doing it, too.

    They're all over and all colors. At least in africa, countless die from being born in africa.

    August 18, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  15. banasy©

    What's killing Coral in Key West?

    Colonel Mustard in the Library with a Candelabra would be my guess.

    August 18, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
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