PUBLIC FORUM / Taking a dip into safe waters

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A wonderful summer has arrived at Malibu’s beaches: warm clear ocean water, south swell waves, beautiful sunlight and colors and pelicans galore. But are our shoreline waters safe for wading, swimming and surfing? When should we worry about bad grades here on Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card?

Paradise Cove, Escondido, Malibu Road at Marie Canyon and Surfrider Beaches are among our beaches that have sporadically had bad grades. But these grades are based on screening tests for fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) that are not specific indicators for disease causing bacteria, viruses or parasites. The FIB, and therefore the Heal the Bay grades, can be easily misleading and inaccurate for predicting the risk of getting sick at beaches where animal fecal and natural source bacteria are common.

For decades, scientists have recognized the limitations of FIB screening tests and the necessity for follow-up source identification to really determine water pollution risks for swimmers and others.

Despite this realization, federal, state and local governments and others have relied on FIB to set federal, state and local water quality standards for goals and compliance. This has led in some instances to misguided enforcement and attempts at solving problems that do not exist.

What really should count for determining and setting our beach water quality status and goals are new human and animal-specific tests for distinguishing between harmless and potentially harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites. These tests are being designed to detect in very small concentrations whether there are really health risks for humans during swimming, surfing, etc. The new species-specific tests have been used to identify the feces from the same dog, gull and even a bear!

These new kinds of tests have been recently used at Malibu beaches and elsewhere and the results are illuminating. There has been no clear evidence for human fecal contamination from Malibu septic systems that have been implicated as pollution sources. There are no sewage spills in Malibu running to the ocean like other communities have suffered.

Preliminary results from a recent survey at Malibu Surfrider Beach revealed only a slight uptick of nausea or vomiting reported in swimmers compared to sunbathers. This is in marked contrast to years ago when surfers often reported wound, ear, sinus and gastrointestinal illness from lagoon waters; at that time tests showed human disease causing viruses. Heal the Bay, the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the City of Malibu and many others should be congratulated on this water quality improvement.

Water run-off “solutions” need further cost effectiveness analysis on a site-specific basis. The disinfection treatment plants paid for at taxpayers expense at Escondido Creek, Paradise Cove, Marie Canyon and Malibu Road have not stopped high FIB counts. They probably never will, since the kelp and birds abound, and source identification studies done at Paradise Cove have shown no disease threats.

Soon there will be reports from the EPA and World Health Organization that should recommend site-specific protocols and new more accurate methods to detect and evaluate sources of disease causing water pollution.

Until then we should learn from the tale of Little Red Riding Hood and not rely on misleading tests and outdated results to cry wolf. Society’s resources are stretched too thin to waste time, energy and money pursuing the wrong goals, issues and remedies.

By Dr. Jeff Harris