Child Hospitalized with Lifelong Health Issues After City of Titusville Sewage Spill

Photo by International Environmental Justice Advocate Stel Bailey

TITUSVILLE, FLORIDA - In the summer of 2020, the northern area of the Indian River Lagoon turned a bright iridescent green, a sign of an algal bloom. This once-diverse estuary, known as the "lagoon fishing capital of the world," has been affected by pollution for decades. Algal blooms can generate harmful toxins that endanger humans and animals, leading to illnesses.

Titusville, a city in the northern region of the Indian River Lagoon, has faced numerous cases of infrastructure breakdown, causing human sewage to overflow into the waterways. In this specific part of the 181-mile lagoon, there is a combination of fresh and salty water that can become still and stagnant. This poses a threat when chemicals from rainwater, septic tank leaks, and sewage contaminate the water. 

The A. Max Brewer Bridge is a bridge that links the city of Titusville with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore Beach. This bridge spans over water and is a popular place for tourists visiting the nearby space center. Many visitors are drawn to this area because of the rocket launches. Titusville is known as "The Gateway to Nature and Space," they proudly showcase this slogan on a sign to welcome visitors.

Several environmental nonprofit organizations arranged a series of marches called "Demand Clean Water" during that time. These rallies were held on the A. Max Brewer Bridge to raise awareness about the presence of harmful algae in the water. The water's bright green hue was a visible sign that something was wrong.

Collaborators from various cities in Florida joined forces to organize demonstrations on bridges all over the state. The renowned environmental activist Erin Brockovich supported this event, highlighting the deteriorated water quality. Whether they were visitors or locals, anyone who crossed the bridge played a part in spreading this message. Throughout the march, the group utilized homemade signs, and some even donned costumes resembling a sewage emoji, ensuring the event gained attention on social media platforms.

In December 2020, a pipe burst happened at Sand Point Park. This park is located near the bridge where advocates raised awareness about the polluted water affected by algae and where parents often take their children. As a result of this pipe break, over 7 million gallons of untreated sewage were released. 

After the pipe broke, the edges of Sand Point Park in Titusville were covered by decaying fish and bones. A local resident took the time to create handmade signs to post around the park, warning people about the potential danger of the recent sewage leak.

Despite the pollution, a Christmas event called Lights of Hope was allowed near the pond filled with largely untreated sewage. Those who attended the event were exposed to small waste particles in the air, which even ended up on their vehicles and were inhaled. The entire park had a bad sewage smell, but food trucks and hot chocolate stands were placed right next to the pond. Some residents were concerned about the decision not to relocate the event to a safer area. It's worth mentioning that the pond was connected to other ponds that eventually emptied into the Indian River Lagoon. 

Whistleblowers at the water department told the Fight for Zero environmental investigative teams that sewage was being sent to a pond in Space View Park. They did this to avoid having human waste on the streets of Titusville's historic downtown area. The team wanted to look into this situation, so they decided to film the pipe connected to the memorial pond, which is connected to the Indian River Lagoon. There were worries that sewage was being released into the Indian River Lagoon from two places. However, it was difficult to access the pipe because it was fenced off and had no trespassing signs. As a result, advocates had to use kayaks on the water to see the location. 

Titusville officials claimed that the sewage spill was controlled and didn't cause significant harm to the Indian River Lagoon. On the other hand, environmental scientists examined the levels of E. Coli and toxins and found dangerous bacteria in the lagoon when the spill happened. 

Environmentalists talked to community members who attended the Christmas event and fell ill. They captured photos and videos of the spill and participated in meetings with local officials to express their worries about the potential health issues caused by harmful exposures. 

Stan Johnston, a long-time resident of the area, quickly took steps to inform the community about the sewage spill. He made signs by hand and placed them around the park where the spill happened. In addition, Johnston attended every city council meeting and consistently expressed worries about the health risks it posed to the public. He mentioned that people he knew were suffering from headaches, feeling sick, and experiencing dizziness. Eventually, due to his efforts, the City was convinced to put up their own signs to inform people about the spill.

Advocates taking water samples experienced health problems while doing their job. Many individuals approached them with issues like sinus infections, vomiting, and other concerns. Three people caught MRSA after swimming in the water due to a sewage spill and needed to go to the emergency room. The city council disregarded these health concerns and suggested that residents consult a doctor if the situation was severe—the pandemic and high healthcare expenses further complicated people's ability to seek assistance. Healthcare providers usually lack knowledge on how to deal with these specific instances of harmful environmental exposures.

In 2021, environmentalists proposed raising awareness about dangerous algae and bacteria in the community by going door-to-door. The city council members were not comfortable with this idea. Scientists confirmed the presence of harmful bacteria in the water, so the Department of Health decided to put up a small sign at Parrish Park to warn people about the toxins. The agency's sign needed to be bigger and more accessible as tourists and families continued to swim in the water without realizing the possible risks.

A mom has decided to pursue legal action following her child's exposure to dangerous bacteria while paddleboarding and swimming in the area without knowledge of the sewage leak. Soon after swimming in the northern Indian River Lagoon on January 2, 2021, the child started having back pain that later spread to their legs. The worried mother took her child to Viera Hospital, and they were then transferred to Nemours Children's Hospital for treatment. The child had several treatments, including a blood transfusion and a spinal tap, which showed that they had a bacterial infection. 

The doctor caring for the boy at the hospital explained that the sewage spill from the City of Titusville most likely caused his bacterial infection. The bacteria that causes this infection is often found in sewage. 

Unfortunately, the situation worsened when someone swimming near Sand Point Park also had to be hospitalized due to the same bacterial infection. We don't have any specific information about the people who went to local hospitals like Parrish Medical Center, but it would be intriguing to find out how many infections were reported during the sewage spill. 

The boy has gone through many medical treatments, stayed in the hospital for more than two months, had more than six sessions of chemotherapy, is still unable to walk, and will have medical problems for the rest of his life because of this infection.

In December 2022, the City of Titusville filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. They argued that as a governmental entity, they don't have a duty to warn the general public and are immune from such lawsuits. The case will be heard by Judge Scott Blaue on April 5, 2023, at the Moore Justice Center.

Katie Perez, Bill Klein, Elizabeth Baker, Kay Onge, Becca McCullough, and Laurilee Thompson are people who care about the environment and live in Titusville. They saw the sewage spill and attended several city council meetings to share their worries. They asked the council to close the park, test the ponds for environmental issues, and clean them up, but the council said no. However, the City put floating wetlands in the ponds to help control rainwater and protect the water downstream by soaking up nutrients. 

People who lived in the area had difficulty getting any action or information from government agencies. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection told them to ask the Florida Department of Health, but they were then redirected to other agencies. The lack of urgency to act ended up making the community sick and had a lasting impact on a child's life.  

The City could have taken several simple steps to improve safety. These steps include putting up big warning signs in different places, sending mailers or adding messages to water bills to inform residents, posting information about all testing done by agencies and the City on their website, using social media to warn people about the risks of swimming, educating the public about harmful bacteria like harmful algal blooms, cyanobacteria, and bacteria from sewage, putting up more turbidity curtains, working with the Department of Health to gather data on illnesses, and closing off dangerous swimming areas.

In 2022 the City of Titusville requested funding from the state for the Osprey Water Reclamation Plant. They asked for $500,000 for a nutrient removal upgrade. 

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Physical contact is not the only way sewage can harm you. There’s a potential for aerosolization of viruses in wastewater systems. Health effects among plant workers were assessed in 2013, and it found that most sewage treatment plant staff were adversely affected due to bioaerosols inhalation. 

Major observed health effects were fatigue, dizziness, eye irritation, and abdominal pain.
Another Bioaerosols emission survey was done in 2015 and found one worker was hospitalized for a week with an MRSA infection of his face and sinuses. Other documented illnesses involved pinkeye, intestinal infection from the Giardia parasite, hepatitis, and illness from E. coli.

Sewage contains a host of toxic chemicals that can kill fish and threaten human health. Some of the harmful chemicals found in sewage are Campylobacter jejuni bacteria, Salmonella, Escherichia coli or E. coli, Listeria bacteria, Cryptosporidium parasite, Adenovirus (commonly found in sewage and causes respiratory infections like pneumonia, croup, and bronchitis. It is also known to cause eye infections, such as conjunctivitis, Norovirus, and Rotavirus. 


One month after the sewage spill incident, deceased manatees began washing ashore. In March of 2021, a Usually Mortality Event (UME) for the Atlantic Florida Manatee was declared. Fight For Zero was pivotal in pushing for the UME through persistent advocacy, grassroots campaigns, partnering with organizations, involving stakeholders, and working with the local community to get national awareness. To find more coverage on the UME, visit: Indian River Lagoon Manatees

Sources and Additional Reading: 

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