EPA in Surf City

Laird Hamilton keynoted EPA confab

Laird Hamilton keynoted EPA confab

I’m here in Huntington Beach, participating in an EPA-hosted national conference focusing on beach water quality issues. More than 330 experts from the U.S., Canada and Europe have convened for three days of discussion and debate.

Among the hot topics:

Rapid methods for detecting fecal bacteria in swimming waters There are already ways to provide water quality data in fewer than 4 hours, and some can provide results in about an hour. Imagine, a public health professional collects a sample at 7 a.m. and sends the results to the county lifeguards by 10, enabling them to post warning signs on the beach before the crowds come. That would be a huge improvement over the current methods that take 18 to 24 hours to provide results.

More rapid tests have only been used for about three years and their effectiveness is being measured in several health effects studies. These studies will provide information on the association of the rapid method results with adverse health effects. The most rapid methods, which have only emerged in the last year or two, have not been used in a health effects study yet. Orange County may use rapid methods for enterococcus bacteria next summer to make beach posting decisions.

Beach sanitary surveys The Great Lakes researchers and beach managers use standardized methods for sanitary surveys throughout the Great Lakes. The techniques characterize potential sources of fecal contamination on the beach, so health and public works agencies can target actions to reduce or stop appropriate sources. This is required in California under AB538, a law Heal the Bay helped write in the 1990s, but the State and Regional Water Boards have largely ignored the requirement for mandatory sanitary surveys at chronically polluted beaches.

Risk assessment More sophisticated epidemiology studies and Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA) hold promise. The EPA and researchers have implemented a number of new health effects studies using new microbial techniques, including sites in Miami, Puerto Rico (first US tropical study), South Carolina, Europe, and more locally, Avalon and Doheny Beach.

The QMRA research focuses on identifying pathogens in the water and using risk assessment techniques to estimate the risk of specific waterborne illness to swimmers. If these methods prove effective, they can save money over implementing large epidemiology studies and they can be used for pathogens found in low densities that cause severe health effects like hepatitis and E. Coli 0157 strain.

Federal BEACH Act implementation The EPA is developing new beach water quality criteria based on rapid methods by 2012, with a goal of national implementation by 2015. The action marks the first time that the federal beach water quality criteria would be updated since 1986. The EPA has been lax in this area and actually missed its 2005 deadline, which resulted in the NRDC’s successful suit on the issue.

Laird Hamilton, the world’s premier big wave surfer, gave an inspirational speech on the importance of the ocean and watersheds. He spoke about how we were abusing our watersheds and rivers with severe consequences to marine life and public health. He is a larger-than-life reminder to all of the beach experts on why we need our beaches safe for swimming and surfing.

Alexis Strauss, administrator for water at EPA Region 9, provided data on the value of clean beaches to the coastal tourism economy. She closed her talk by stating that the EPA strives to equally protect the public health of swimmers in lakes, rivers and the ocean, to those who swim in temperate and tropical waters, and to those that swim in waters polluted by runoff, sewage or wildlife.

It’s an ambitious and worthy goal, one greatly needed to protect the health of the hundreds of millions of people that visit U.S. beaches every year.

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