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From Behind the Scenes, Scientists Join the Fight
Santa Barbara News-Press
By Scott Hadly
January 30, 2000

Using DNA studies, a team of UCSB scientists is attempting to catalogue the full range of pathogens in polluted creeks.

Filtering 20 liters of water from Arroyo Burro Creek down to a thimble of full extracted material, professor Trish Holden and a group of graduate students working in her lab at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science, want to develop a fuller understanding to the kinds of microbes in the water that can cause diseases.

"We’ll be looking at the whole community of pathogens in the water," Holden said.

Her work is part of the long list of studies focusing scientific attention on the ocean pollution problem. The research is pushing policy makers to catch up with the new information about pollution and its potential impacts on human health. Most recently, amendments are being considered for a Beach Pollution bill now before the U.S. Senate; that measure would require states to develop standards for pathogens within the next three years.

Last year, Heal the Ocean and county environmental health officials were involved in another type of DNA study, this one looking at the sources of fecal contamination in Rincon Creek. The study found that almost half of the fecal bacteria was from domestic sources including 20 percent from humans. The study proved a significant amount of human waste was getting into the creek.

Another type of DNA test, also sponsored by Heal the Ocean last year, looked at water in Mission Creek. The test, done by USC laboratory found traces of hepatitis viruses in the water.

The tests don’t show if the viruses were alive or dead, and there isn’t any information about what level of virus poses a risk for people. Similar studies at other beaches in Southern California also found viruses.

Most disturbing was that viruses have been found in the water that has tested clean for the bacterial indicator used in measuring pollution.
"Frankly there’s a lot we don’t know about how viruses act in the ocean," said Jeff Young, co-director of Heal the Ocean. "And the tests show the weakness of current standards."

Current sampling measures certain types of bacteria that are indicators of pollution and the potential for health risks, but it doesn’t measure the pathogens or viruses that actually cause diseases.

The standards, developed originally through epidemiology studies done on bathers at New York beaches, give the approximate risk of becoming ill through water contact.

A more recent study in Santa Monica Bay simply looked at a group of 13,000 swimmers and surfers found that those who frequented areas near storm drain outfalls where pollution is at its highest, were 50 percent more likely to become ill.

Despite the weaknesses in the standards, they are useful, said Bob Meek, owner of the mariculture company Ecomar, which also conducts pollution studies for the city of Santa Barbara and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

And the discovery of hepatitis in Mission Creek doesn’t concern Dr. Frank Alvarez, director of Disease Control and Prevention for the county’s public health agency. Although local surfers have long complained of contracting skin rashes, sinus infection or gastrointestinal illness from pollution, Alvarez said he has yet to find any surfers who have gotten sick from surfing in polluted water here.

"If we are getting an outbreak of hepatitis or some other disease I’d be worried, but we haven’t seen that," he said. "I’ve attempted to follow up on reports from surfers, but I haven’t been able to make that connection yet."