AHS science students join other labs in search of bacteria in the surf
By KARA HANSEN
Posted by The Daily Astorian, Monday, April 14, 2008
Astoria High School junior Brian Perez draws water from a jar into a tube, mixes up a solution and taps out the bubbles. "Bubbles screw up the results," he explains. "There are different bacteria in the air that could react."
His lab partners, too, are careful not to compromise the integrity of their sample, remarking in urgent whispers, "Be careful!" and "Don't touch it!"
Tightly sealed in a plastic tray, the liquid is set aside for incubation in the applied science center at Astoria High. It will be 24 hours before students know the bacteria levels of their latest sample. What they find will have real-world implications, yielding measurements that reveal potential health hazards to beach users along the Oregon Coast.
"Inquiry-based science is one of our primary goals at Astoria High School," said Instructor Tim Roth, who teaches chemistry and cellular biology, a class that targets students interested in health occupations. "But more importantly, we feel it is vital to encourage students' work within our community on science that is relevant to their lives, and where they feel they can actually make an impact."
The water testing lab, new this year in Roth's class, could lead to a better overall understanding of what goes into waters off the North Coast. Established with the Surfrider Foundation's Portland chapter, the new Blue Water Task Force branch joins several other coastal labs, adding popular recreational beaches from Astoria to Oswald West to more than 20 locations volunteers already track farther south. Charlie Plybon, Surfrider's Oregon field coordinator, said the goal is to alert communities about local water quality problems that affect their health, but also to work toward long-term solutions. While a sample or two offer a snapshot of marine conditions for a short period, collected regularly over a longer time, they can help pinpoint pollution at its source. "Understanding pollution patterns at recreational beaches is not only important for the health of surfers, paddlers and beachgoers," Plybon said, "but also for how we develop and understand our impact on coastal ecosystems."
The results of Astoria High's tests are posted on Surfrider's online database after students measure and chart bacteria levels. Their process is similar to what's used by the state's Beach Monitoring Program that also tracks bacterial concentrations off Oregon's shores, but which, according to Plybon, is hamstrung by limited funding. "They don't get to test everywhere all the time," he said. "At this point we sort of augment their testing. Unfortunately, recreational users are using the beach a lot more often than they're testing."
Surfers and others who spend time in the ocean routinely fall victim to a wide range of nasty waterborne ailments, from skin rashes and ear, eye and sinus infections to more serious illnesses like Hepatitis A, which can cause liver damage. A major culprit: enterococcus, or fecal bacteria, which works its way into marine waters through streams and creeks and stormwater runoff, from home septic systems, sewage spills and animal waste. That's what Astoria High students are testing for.
But while knowing a beach is polluted may keep a few bodies off the water for a day, at this point, the information is mostly used to understand a bigger picture. "We use the data over the long term more than we do for the short term," said Plybon. "It's not as much for us to warn people to stay out of the water or to deter people; we want them to know what their risks are.
"Surfers will go out if there's a health advisory. That's just the draw of the sport, that hunger to surf. Guys are gonna get in the water."
Take it from Mark "Finger" Taylor, owner of Cold Water Surf in Astoria: Sometimes the waves are just too good to care. "Where a person surfs depends on a lot of factors," he said recently at his shop, now also a collection site for water samples. "The quality of water would be one of those variables. But surfers are a funny lot. I've gotten sick before on closed beaches."
Taylor earned his nickname when his left middle finger was on the mend, after he dislocated it while venturing into the surf. Despite "immense pain" and the odd angle his finger was cocked at the knuckle after breaking his fall on some slimy rocks, Taylor surfed a full two hours with his injured hand; he never regained mobility of that middle digit. "The doctor told me that had I tended to my finger right after the injury, instead of surfing with it, it would have fully healed," he recounted in a book, "Surfing's Greatest Misadventures." "I let his absurd hypothesis pass without comment - obviously, he was not a surfer."
However, a recent spate of possible staph infections among North Coast surfers may have intensified water concerns for some. The cases appear to share one link: the Cove, a popular Seaside surf spot. "No one can really put a finger on it to say where it's coming from," said Mark Mekenas, who runs Cannon Beach Surf Shop. "All of us have one place in common: We all surf at the Cove. But there's no way to say we got it at the Cove. You just can't."
Plybon, who hears reports of possible beach-related illnesses through Surfrider, said he can confirm three cases of infections from deadly antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria, which spreads rapidly from person to person or by indirect contact through open wounds. But he agreed with Mekenas the cases could be a coincidence. "It's tough to say," he said. "The water turbidity, color and algal blooms that have been happening in Seaside have been pretty dark. That is typical for this time of year, but it's been funkier than it usually is."
Although water tested at Astoria High showed a couple of spikes in the Cove's bacteria levels in early to mid-March, concentrations appeared down by the end of the month. Now, the class needs more samples - more volunteers who regularly collect and deliver them Mondays, the student' testing day - to better track what's happening off the coast, said Roth. "We'd like to be able to expand the program," he said. "The more data we have the better."
Plybon agreed, noting if the community starts now, it can prevent some problems from happening in the future, like those in California, where "it's been so urbanized that with the stormwater runoff on the coast after any rainstorm, they basically give a two-day warning to folks," often without needing to do tests.
"Our goal in Oregon is not to get there," Plybon said. "If we plan properly now and work with cities and with coastal communities for best management practices for things like stormwater and sewage, those things can help us in the long term, so we don't end up like California one day with high health advisories every time it rains."