Sickened California Swimmers Spend Millions for Health Care

IRVINE, California, May 3, 2005 (ENS) - Swimming at two popular California beaches - America’s "Surf City,” Huntington Beach, and the nearby vacation destination, Newport Beach – costs people $3.3 million per year in health care expenses, according to a study conducted at the University of California-Irvine's Department of Environmental Health, Science and Policy.

The calculation is based on lost wages and medical care to treat more than 74,000 incidents of stomach illness, respiratory disease and eye, ear and skin infections caused by exposure to the polluted waters south of Los Angeles in a typical year.

This is the first study to estimate the economic impact of illnesses associated with polluted recreational waters, although similar calculations have been done regarding air pollution.

A public health cost assessment like this can be a useful tool for officials evaluating the cost-benefit of projects to treat sewage and urban runoff headed for local beaches, the researchers said.

“The ultimate value of this research is for policymakers, who are well aware of the substantial costs involved with cleaning up water pollution, but need to know the other side of the equation – the costs associated with not cleaning up the water,” said lead author Ryan Dwight, who surfs California beaches often.

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Surfers play in the waves at Huntington Beach, California (Photo credit unknown)
This is the latest in a series of published studies by Dwight showing that urban runoff is the primary source of coastal water pollution in this area, and that surfers frequenting polluted urban coastal waters get sick more often than surfers in rural areas.

The findings are reported in the online version of the "Journal of Environmental Management."

The estimated cost, which the researchers describe as conservative, includes lost income based on typical Orange County salaries and medical expenses based on doctors’ fees, and assumes that the illnesses take on various levels of severity.

Additional costs for self-treatment, such as purchasing over-the-counter medicine, and potential costs to the local tourism industry, the health care system and society at large are not included in the valuation.

“This estimate helps us begin to understand the bigger picture of the economic burden imposed on society from polluting our coastal recreational waters,” saidd University of California-Riverside economist Linda Fernandez, a co-author of the study.

The researchers emphasize the need for more studies to fully understand the economic impact of coastal water pollution, as it affects tourism, recreational values and other related factors.

The beaches studied receive pollution from treated sewage discharged offshore, and untreated urban runoff which flows directly onto the beaches. During the time of the study, both beaches had water quality well within accepted levels, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California. In fact, researchers estimate that if bacteria levels in these coastal waters were exactly at accepted levels, the total health cost would be greater than $7 million per year.

Another study of these beaches conducted by Dwight and released last month, shows that urban beach water made surfers ill twice as often as did ocean surf in more rural areas.

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Surfer rides a wave at Newport Beach, California. (Photo courtesy City of Newport Beach)
The findings suggest that widespread exposure to urban runoff at beaches in populated areas increases health risks to all swimmers, even when pollution levels are within current environmental monitoring guidelines.

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 in 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.

These symptoms ranged from fever, nausea, stomach pain and diarrhea to sore throat, eye redness and skin infection.

This study is one of the first to quantify the health effects of ocean water by monitoring beach users from both urban and rural areas. Dwight conducted the study with Dr. Dean Baker, professor of medicine and director of the UC-Irvine Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. Findings appear in the April edition of the "American Journal of Public Health."

North Orange County, including Huntington and Newport beaches, was designated as the urban site because its watershed is in one of the most developed areas in the world and generates highly polluted runoff, which discharges 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.

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

Chad Nelsen, Surfrider Foundation's environmental director and co-author of the organization's annual State of the Beach report, says, "Most people simply take for granted that our beaches are healthy. Unfortunately this is not the case."

"Although our ocean waters may look safe to swim and recreate in, they're not," Nelsen said. "Contamination form urban runoff and non-point source pollution contributed to our seeing the second highest number of beach closures and advisories in recent years in 2002."