Oregon Health Authorities Investigating 'River Nose'

Water sports enthusiasts have enviable attributes, from six-pack abs to a smooth tan. But for the windsurfers and kitesurfers who populate the Columbia River Gorge near Portland, Ore., a summer of high-impact recreation may have health impacts, too.

Prompted by years of complaints of "river nose," the Oregon Public Health Division is currently conducting a survey to determine the cause of a problem that has plagued surfers who skim across gorge waters for about two decades.

Brian Schurton, owner of Brian's Windsurfing in Hood River, Ore., said his "river nose" can keep him up at night.

"If I get water up my nose, I can't sleep for two nights," Schurton said. "It's hard to breathe and clogs up sinuses."

"River nose" describes a host of symptoms that includes runny nose, congestion, gastrointestinal irritation, and cuts and bruises that seem to take unusually long to heal.

Although the condition has been known to area windsurfers and kitesurfers for many years, a spike in reported symptoms last year led the Columbia River Keepers, a river watchdog group, to conduct a survey to determine the extent to which windsurfers were affected by respiratory and other problems as a result of their sport.

Catch a Wave

Oregon's Department of Health Services conducted its own survey on the same topic and found that 37 percent of respondents experienced symptoms of "river nose" more often in the Columbia River than in other bodies of water.

Pollen in the water from plants in the area might compound the problem, according to Tim Mayer, president of the Columbia Gorge Windsurfing Association and a surfer of 20 years who thinks allergies might be to blame for his "river nose."

"It just gets up into the sinuses when we fall into the water," Mayer said. "If I didn't wear nose plugs, I'd be pretty stuffed up for a few days."

Mayer does not experience "river nose" or other adverse symptoms after windsurfing in the ocean.

But Dr. Paul Cieslak, an epidemiologist and manager of the Communicable Disease Program for the Oregon Public Health Division who is heading up the survey, said that the underlying causes for "river nose" could be as simple as taking a face full of water at 30 miles per hour.

"You land in the river, and water shoots up the nose," Cieslak said. "That alone could give you respiratory symptoms."

Sink or Swim

While allergies might be the cause of "river nose" for some, Cieslak noted that complaints of gastrointestinal illnesses, diarrhea and reports of slow-healing cuts could point to more potent toxins in the river water, such as bacteria, herbicides, pesticides and chemicals for treating sewage.

"[These toxins] can cause skin irritation and mucous membrane irritation," said Dr. Robert Hendrickson, a toxicologist at Oregon Health and Science University. "People could be allergic or react differently to different amounts of substance. ... It depends on what it is they are being exposed to."

Brent Foster, executive director of the Columbia River Keepers, said his group has taken initiative in the area, working both with the Oregon Department of Health Services and the Environmental Protection Agency to try to identify potential particles and toxins that might cause "river nose." The current survey is another piece of the project.

"I'm not sure if we're going to find the silver bullet, but moving in that direction is pretty significant," Foster said.

But it is not likely that the survey will be applicable, at least for the present, for other areas where there is a high concentration of windsurfers and kitesurfers. The "river nose" phenomenon appears to be unique to the Columbia River Gorge and is not reported or studied in other parts of the country, such as California, Florida and North Carolina, where windsurfing and kitesurfing are also popular.

"We're only looking at the gorge," Cieslak said. "I don't know how generalizable [the survey] will be."

Even if the results cannot soothe "river nose," they may soothe minds of people who want to know where the problem is coming from.

"I [kitesurf] three times a week," Foster said. "We don't think the river is not safe to swim in, but it is something we got to deal with."