A recent article by Surfer Magazine detailing how a San Diego surfer got sick and ultimately died after surfing following a heavy rain event begs the questions - How did this happen? And, What can we do about it?
Water quality at the beach is threatened by urban and stormwater runoff and sewage that enters our local waterways from either inadequate or failing sewage treatment systems and infrastructure. Thanks to BEACH Act funded water quality monitoring programs and other community-based programs such as the Blue Water Task Force, we have information that helps us better understand where it is safe to get into the water, but these programs are neither perfect nor can they monitor all beaches at all times, and human health still can be affected by pollution.
Decisions to post swim advisories or open and close beaches are based upon a standard set by the EPA to protect public health in recreational waters. Surfrider volunteers, as well as local and state health agencies, test the water at the beach for the presence of enterococcus bacteria which indicate fecal pollution and the presence of other pathogens - bacteria, viruses and protozoa - that can make people sick. Enteroccus generally does not cause sickness on its own, but it lives in the intestinal tract of all warm-blooded animals, and if it is in the water, then that usually means that fecal matter (human sewage or animal sources) is also in the water, and that is unhealthy for people to be surfing or swimming in. Learn more about enterococcus and indicator bacteria here.
Levels of enterococcus bacteria that exceed the health standard don't tell you whether the fecal pollution is from human or animal sources, more detailed genetic testing is required for that, but regardless of the source, both animals and humans have pathogens in their waste that can make people sick. EPA doesn't provide for a different standard to be used to protect public health at beaches where animals are the dominant source of pollution (agriculture runoff, pets, wildlife or bird) unless a state goes through a very detailed and costly process, Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA), to determine a site-specific alternative water quality criteria that will be protective of public health at a particular beach.
The most common sympoms from exposure to fecal pollution in the water include gastro-intestinal ailments (diarrhea, naussea and vomiting), flu-like symptoms, rashes and skin and eye infections. Learn more about the health threats from polluted water on Beachapedia.
Unfortunately, sometimes the consequences are more serious, and swimmers and surfers have contracted hard to treat staph infections and worse. Surfer Magazine just ran a very sobering article about long time Sunset Cliffs (San Diego) surfer Barry Ault who contracted a massive vibrio and staph infection and died within a few days of surfing after a major rain event. Read more on Surfermag.com.
This is why we do what we do at Surfrider. We want to ensure clean water at the beach for ourselves and future generations. When we discover pollution at the beach we report it to local authorities and insist on proper public notification so that no one has to get sick while we bring together local stakeholders to identify and fix the sources of pollution. Learn more about how our chapter network is engaging to solve local water pollution problems in our 2015 Clean Water Report. You can also join us in our campaign to keep state and local beach water quality programs funded by asking Congress to continue to fund the BEACH Act.
Play it safe and remember to heed swim advisory signs and any warnings to stay out of the water after rain and brown water conditions. A day at the beach should be fun and relaxing and not end up with a trip to the hospital.