Pittsburgh Triathlon Swim Seems to Disregard Event Policy on
7 August 2014
By Karen Price and Aaron Aupperlee
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
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
“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
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
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.”
Karen Price and Aaron Aupperlee are staff writers for Trib Total
Media. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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