When Dr. Ryan Dwight started his graduate studies at UC Irvine he spent a considerable amount of time surfing at the beach and trying to come up with a topic for his dissertation.
Unfortunately for Dwight and many of his friends, the ocean water caused frequent illnesses, prompting him to investigate the causes.
‘Having lived up and down the California coast, I realized that North Orange County’s coastal waters are very polluted,’ Dwight said. ‘It was clear that the illness rates were far too high.’
What started as an investigation into illnesses became the subject of a three-part publication stemming from the thesis proposal, ‘The health and economic impacts of coastal water pollution.’
According to Dwight’s research, swimming in coastal waters off Newport and Huntington beaches costs the public $3.3 million in health-related expenses.
‘A cost-of-illness model was used to calculate health costs associated with water pollution-related illnesses,’ Dwight explained. ‘The results were then applied in a site-specific example to show their potential utility.’
Dwight’s research led to the publication of three papers.
According to Dwight, the first paper showed that urban runoff is the primary source of coastal water pollution.
The second paper comparing the two groups of surfers revealed that individuals in urban areas who are exposed to high levels of pollution reported twice as many illnesses more than twice as often as their counterparts in Santa Cruz who surf in cleaner water.
The third paper examined the economic impact of coastal water pollution, which Dwight claims ‘[justifies] the funds needed to avoid these health outcomes.’
While the research focuses on pollution in the ocean, Dwight’s research paints a bigger picture illuminating the basic premise that to ‘when an illness occurs, there are health-related costs involved.’
He used the example of a recreational swimming pool and its cost of maintenance for health purposes.
‘Putting chlorine in a community pool costs a lot of money for the center,’ Dwight said. ‘However, if they didn’t disinfect the pool water, the resulting illnesses would cost the community in a much larger way,’ Dwight said.
Dwight stressed the cost effectiveness of ‘proactive pollution prevention,’ which he claims will reduce health care costs.
Before Dwight began his research, faculty from the School of Social Ecology were apprehensive to study his research question. Even though they ‘readily dismissed’ his original proposal, Dwight persevered.
‘I went outside the department and the university to find committed scientists to help guide me to a scientifically valid research project,’ Dwight said. ‘I was able to successfully conduct these research projects and received my doctorate in 2001.’
Dwight is currently presenting his research to policy makers and to the Regional Quality Control Boards in mid-August.
‘The [RQCB] are the ones that have to tell cities to clean up their waterways. So this will be a useful tool for them in their efforts,’ Dwight said.
Dwight’s research was conducted entirely out-of-pocket along with a committee of co-authors. The committee not only helped him write the papers, but was also responsible for deciding whether Dwight deserved the degree.
‘They were all very helpful with comments, suggestions and edits,’ Dwight said. ‘They have all been ‘in the loop,’ as it were, but I saw the project through this point.’
Study co-authors included Dean Baker from the Department of Medicine and professor Betty Olson from the Department of Environmental Health, Science and Policy.