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JUNE 17 - JUNE 25, 2014

Seagull Droppings Coat Cave of the Winds Employees exposed to toxic guano

By Sarah Martinez

June 17, 2014

The "Cave of the Winds" tour in the Niagara Falls State Park attracts around half-a-million visitors each year.

Many describe it as the best attraction in the park.

But for park employees assigned to the Cave of the Winds, there may be a health issue that has, until now, been unaddressed.

Along the gorge and pathway that leads to the Cave of the Winds is a nesting area for seagulls. In June, as many as 100,000 gulls on migratory flights from Greenland and the Canadian Arctic to Florida find their way to the Niagara River.

Because of the large population of gulls, park employees every morning are assigned to clear walkways to the Cave of the Winds of seagull fecal matter, called "guano," which covers paths and handrails with a blanket of white.

"Every day, the path and the railings are covered," said one former parks employee who had been assigned to the task. "Every day they are washed and, by the next morning, the railings and paths are covered in white again. Some days there is more white than black pavement showing."

According to sources, parks workers have not been advised of the potential dangers of regular exposure to seagull droppings.

Personal protective equipment, like filtration masks, is not provided to parks employees who clean the guano, despite OSHA standards. This increases their risk of exposure to deadly bacteria.

Almost 90 percent of seagull feces contains Enterococcus which causes infections that are antibiotic resistant. Overexposure to bird droppings can also cause Histoplasmosis, (Cave Disease) which mimics flu-like symptoms and can be fatal if left untreated. The disease is usually misdiagnosed unless the patient informs his or her medical practitioner that unusual exposure to bird droppings has occurred. Symptoms generally appear three to 10 days after exposure.

The Centers for Disease Control suggest that signs should be posted warning of health risks in areas suspected of being contaminated with seagull droppings, such as bird roosts or buildings.

To get an idea of the magnitude of the problem, take a trip through the "Cave of the Winds" yourself.

After an elevator ride down to the base of the Niagara Gorge, visitors clad in ponchos and sandals are greeted by the stench of seagull guano. A guide escorts guests down a path usually laden with white bird droppings left behind daily by thousands of seagulls nesting along the rocky embankment.

As you get closer to the falls, the mist and spray wash that part of the trail clean.

Standing on the wooden decks, getting as close as 20 feet from Bridal Veil Falls, observing the mist and falling waters beneath and above the "Hurricane Deck," one may get a dose of fecal matter mixed with water and not notice it.

Tour guides, who also face regular, daily exposure, say the hooded ponchos are needed as much for airborne guano as for the drenching spray of the falls.

For the casual visitor, the thousands of nesting seagulls are part of the rare scenes of nature afforded by the unique attraction. And while seagull nesting causes an immense amount of fecal matter to be distributed throughout the attraction, the visitor's exposure is limited, although one park employee estimated that more than 50 percent of visitors get at least one dose of seagull droppings on their persons or on their ponchos, whether they notice it or not.

What is unclear is the risk to the health and safety of park employees who get a steady dose of the guano. Also in flux is the responsibility of park management in warning or failing to warn of potential health hazards involved when exposed to high levels of toxic guano on a daily basis.





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