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Just how dirty have our coasts become?
The Providence Journal
By Patricia Holden
January 16, 2000

People naturally want to live near the ocean. That’s one reason why California, Florida, and the Carolinas are among the nation’s fastest-growing states. Unfortunately, more people means more human waste. In turn, this means that more human waste finds its way into the water along those coastlines.

At least, that is what we think. But, in reality, we don’t know how healthy or diseased our beaches are because the testing that government agencies conduct to monitor those beaches is not nearly sophisticated enough. Our beaches may be very safe. Or they may be health hazards. No agency can yet say which is true.
It is hard for any agency to know just how sick people could become from recreating along the coastlines around the United States, or if they’re getting sick at all. Some swimmers, surfers, and fishermen voluntarily take crude precautions- that is, they avoid the beaches that are near the creek mouths and sewer outfalls. These precautions, i.e., the "ounce of prevention", could be a "cure" for protecting swimmers. But, since there are so very few epidemiological studies of how sick swimmers become in our coastal waters, and few facts about the levels of contamination, it’s a tough sell for public health agencies to broadly recommend when or where not to swim, surf, or fish.

The reason that the health of our beaches is in question is that the testing methods used and required by government agencies don’t directly detect pathogens in the coastal waters around the United States. (A pathogen is either bacteria or virus that can cause disease, usually respiratory infection, gastrointestinal ailments, and ear and eye infections.) Here’s how coastal water in the United States is monitored.

Agencies test what are called "indicator organisms," jargon for microbes that are only indicative of the presence of human waste in the environment- proxies for human waste microbes. Based on these "proxy" tests, agencies may post a warning to those using the beach. Every year some big beach is closed because results of the test show high levels of "indicator organisms." While indicator organisms are good yet conservative methods for protecting drinking water, they throw off false negative and false positive readings in storm water, creeks, and oceans. This is because indicator organisms may be found in soil, in creek waters or in animal waste. So it is tough to know if there are organisms in the ocean that could really make people sick.

In short, indicator organisms are not a good way to test for pathogens in environmental waters. We need improvements that will give the public greater assurance as to the safety of beaches and shorelines:

*Augment current monitoring (i.e., indicator organisms) with tests that more accurately measure the presence of pathogens, or the presence of human waste. These tests would involve greater use of molecular biology. Unfortunately, most public agencies don’t yet have these tools. But perhaps the use of chemical markers for human waste can be used as a temporary solution until better testing is developed.

*Improve our data base for the illness rate for swimmers, surfers and fishermen who use these coastlines. If we could have a more comprehensive database of who gets sick, the frequency of the illnesses, and what type of illness, then we’d have a better understanding of how contaminated shorelines are.

*Develop a more systematic way of detecting human-waste sources. We need to know what’s going on in what are called "black boxes," septic systems and old sanitary sewers that have been around for a long time. Residential septic systems are all over the country and they have been seen as a proper way of waste disposal, but we don’t yet understand how each field functions, and how much septic systems could be contributing to shoreline contamination.

*Greater coordination among groups conducting research on shoreline contamination around the United States. As with law enforcement agencies, people are surprised by the lack of communication between scientific groups. By using the Internet, agencies can gather more information about what other groups are doing to monitor shoreline water, and can gather the latest research on water contamination.

Our beaches are national treasures. As populations increase along our shores, there is an even greater need to produce more sophisticated tracking, testing, and monitoring. Not only for our own recreational use, but for those who depend on the oceans for other reasons as well.

Patricia Holden is an assistant professor of environmental microbiology at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California at Santa Barbara.