ISLAMORADA -- Residents and village officials alike say coral dust from the Islamorada sewer project is causing respiratory problems and allergy-like symptoms.
However, Mariners Hospital officials say they haven't seen a spike in respiratory-related ailments as the 18-month-old project has been underway.
"Trends have been stable," said David Guardino, a senior respiratory therapist at Mariners.
Concerns over dust along large swaths of Upper Matecumbe Key made their way into Village Council discussions twice in May. The more protracted of the two discussions took place on May 22 after Upper Matecumbe resident Barbara Knowles blamed the sewer work for a scratchy throat.
"It's the dust that's in the air," she said. "They're still digging in my community, and I've had this frog in my throat for two weeks. I'll be so glad when it is over."
Responded Mayor Ted Blackburn, "You're not the only one."
Indeed, excessive amounts of airborne coral dust can trigger respiratory problems, especially for people who suffer from asthma, both Guardino and the Monroe County Health Department say. But Health Department Administrator Bob Eadie is quick to point out that coral dust isn't any worse than any other form of construction dust.
Meanwhile, Guardino said there's no way to determine if an attack of asthma, bronchitis or another respiratory ailment is caused by sewer project dust, normal seasonal allergies or some other cause.
"They'll blame it on that, but you can't prove that is the cause," he said in an interview last week.
Still, Guardino himself expressed concern at a Village Council meeting in early May.
"We've had quite a few people that have had increased difficulties, and they say it is ever since they dug up the street and the coral dust," Guardino said that night. "There is some real evidence to support that."
Guardino also urged the council to pave the construction area near Treasure Village Montessori School.
"I think it's bad for the kids," he said.
Whether or not the sewer construction-related dust has had an impact on public health in Islamorada, council members have called on sewer contractor Layne to do what it can to minimize it.
Specifically, they asked for the company, also known as Reynolds Water Islamorada, to move faster on paving over the sewer cuts.
"You can't leave these neighborhoods exposed to the elements," Councilman Ken Philipson said.
Speaking before the council on May 22, Layne local manager Wes Self apologized for how long it took to close up a trench line along the Old Highway, near Philipson's Tropical Optical shop. He blamed the situation on a subcontractor that did the trenching too early.
"We're going to try to limit that in the future," Self said.
In an interview last week, Layne spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said the company also takes steps to limit the dust. For example, the company waters down construction areas daily.
Still, Miller acknowledged that there is no getting around the fact that laying a sewer line causes a temporary inconvenience. While Layne has completed work in some neighborhoods in as little as three months, work in more complicated areas has taken as long as six months. In the Venetian Shores neighborhood, where trenching began last week, paving is expected in December, she said.
Residents there, though, should get some added dust control from Mother Nature now that the rainy season has begun.
"This will be like an extra watering every day," Miller said.