Surfers who visit Huntington and Newport Beach get more than an occasional mouthful of salt water; they are also inviting a host of pathogens to make them sick. The latest study from UC Irvine researchers found that urban beach water made surfers prone to a number of health risks as a result of pollutants in urban runoff.
The study, appearing in this month’s American Journal of Public Health, was led by Ryan Dwight of the Department of Environmental Health, Science and Policy, and Dr. Dean Baker, a professor of medicine and director of the UCI Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, and was supported by the University of California Toxic Substances Research and Teaching Program.
Conducted in the winters of 1998 and 1999, Dwight and Baker found that urban beach waters, like those in North Orange County, made surfers twice as ill as did rural ocean waters off Santa Cruz. In addition, reported symptoms for both groups increased by about 10 percent for each 2.5 hours of weekly water exposure.
Urban runoff is a combination of pollutants that come off the urban landscape and are captured by runoff water.
Researchers noted surfers’ reported health symptoms after surfing in Orange County and Santa Cruz County beaches, such as nausea, sore throat, diarrhea, vomiting and ear pain.
According to Dwight, the paper is the first to tie together two main previously published findings. First, the more urbanized an area is, the more pollution there is in the runoff. Second, swimming in polluted water makes people sick.
Dwight said the Santa Ana River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean between Huntington State Beach and Newport Beach, accumulates about 2.5 million gallons of runoff per day.
He also noted that North Orange County has more urban runoff than any other area along the California coast.
However, the county has begun to divert some of this urban runoff to sewage treatment plants in an attempt to minimize the amount of pollution that eventually meets the ocean.
‘It’s up in the air how much these diversions are helping,’ Dwight commented. ‘What is known is that as the number of diversions increases, the number of pollutants decreases.’
Dwight also said that source reduction is a major approach to decreasing the amount of pollutants present in urban runoff. Dwight believes educating the public about the pollution they contribute is important.
Being so close to the beach, UCI’s community of surfers and swimmers are a bit concerned about these findings.
‘I am very disturbed to know that going surfing in Newport Beach will increase my health risk,’ said Monica Siegenthaler, a second-year graduate student in anatomy and neurobiology. ‘I have had sore throats after surfing in the past, but I always thought salt water just did that to you.’
Sherry Fahmi, a second-year biological sciences major, echoed Siegenthaler’s sentiments.
‘I’m a little concerned [about these findings],’ Fahmi said. ‘It makes me want to stay on the sand.’
These findings will not drive Siegenthaler away, though they only make her more cautious.
‘This study may not impact how much time I spend in the water, but it will be on my mind every time I am in the water or see others in the water,’ Siegenthaler said. ‘[I just] may drive to more rural beaches.’
Rather than completely avoid the beach, Dwight offers a bit of advice for surfers and swimmers.
‘Avoid river mouths and storm drain outlets,’ Dwight said. ‘Just be aware and do your own risk analysis.’
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