Urban Waves Sicken Surfers

IRVINE, California, April 6, 2004 (ENS) - Urban beach water is making surfers sick to their stomachs twice as often as the surf in more rural areas, according to new research from the University of California-Irvine. Surfing is not so much fun when accompanied by fever, nausea, stomach pain and diarrhea, sore throat, red eyes or skin infection.

The research team was led by Ryan Dwight of the University of California-Irvine (UCI) Environmental Health Science and Policy Program and Dr. Dean Baker, professor of medicine and director of the UCI Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. Study results appear in the April edition of the "American Journal of Public Health."

Their research is the first to quantify the health effects of ocean water by monitoring beach users from both urban and rural areas.

“Surfers are an excellent group to study, because they are in the water almost every day and are exposed to more bacterial pathogens from runoff than casual beach users,” said Dwight, a surfer as well as a scientist.

The findings suggest that exposure to urban runoff at beaches in highly populated areas increases health risks to all swimmers, even when pollution levels are within current environmental monitoring guidelines.

“These potential health risks warrant greater public health surveillance, as well as greater efforts to reduce pollutants discharged on public beaches,” said Dwight.


These Santa Cruz surfers are riding cleaner waves than their Huntington Beach friends. (Photo credit unknown)
The researchers compared rates of reported health symptoms among California surfers in urban north Orange County and rural Santa Cruz County during the winters of 1998 and 1999.

The urban surfers reported almost twice as many symptoms as the rural surfers during the rainy El Niño winter of 1998.

During both study years, reported symptoms for both groups increased by about 10 percent for each 2.5 hours of weekly water exposure.

North Orange County – which includes America’s Surf City, Huntington Beach, and the popular vacation destination, Newport Beach – was designated as the urban site. Its watershed is in one of the most developed areas in the world and generates polluted runoff, discharged through the Santa Ana River.

Santa Cruz County was selected as the rural site because of its cleaner coastal water quality and watershed characteristics. Both are popular surfing locales.

According to Baker, this study differs from others because it looked into the health impacts of general exposure to beach water, not to specific sites where pollutants released by sources such as industrial plants or wastewater treatment plants can be monitored.

“Because our study looked at the health effects associated with open beaches," Baker said, "it suggests that the current guidelines to monitor and close beaches in urban areas such as Orange County may not be sufficient to protect the public’s health from general water runoff."


Surf on the rural North Shore of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Chad Nelsen, Surfrider Foundation’s environmental director is also concerned about pollution in the waves. Founded in 1984, Surfrider Foundation now has 60 chapters located along the East, West, Gulf, Puerto Rican, and Hawaiian coasts. International Surfrider Foundation chapters and affiliates have been established in Japan, Brazil, Australia, France and Spain.

“Most people simply take for granted that our beaches are healthy, and unfortunately this is not the case,” says Nelsen. “While our ocean waters make look safe to swim or recreate in, they’re not."

On Monday, an article complaining about sewage seeping into Florida surf appeared on the Surfermag.com website. One billion gallons a day of partially treated sewage from 300 separate wells is being pumped into the Florida ground, say the surfers, and they can see it in the waters.

In 1997, Tom Warnke founded the Palm Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Warnke claims that anecdotal evidence of sewage seeping through Florida's porous limestone into the sea is "everywhere."

"Dead dolphins, killer algae, horrible sea lice infestations, biblical red-tide outbreaks, sea turtles with horrendous lesions and dying reefs in the Florida Keys," he writes.

For the past four years the Surfrider Foundation has issued a State of the Beach report which documents which beaches are safe and which are less so. The most recent Surfrider State of the Beach report, released in May 2003, concludes that while states are doing a better job collecting and reporting beach access and surf zone water quality information, public information is very limited.

The indicator information that is available is often confusing, the Surfrider report states. Results are inconsistent within and between states because the studies they are based on use different standards and criteria. Indicator information is also often not easily interpreted by the general public and elected officials.

Because there are gaps and limitations in beach health indicator information, it is difficult to know the extent to which our coastal and ocean resources are at risk. But even with limited information, the report warns, "Increasing beach closures and health advisories tell us that surf zone water quality is often getting worse."