Save That Sick Day for After the Beach

Times Staff Writer

Bacterial pollution sickens as many as 1.5 million swimmers and surfers annually at many Southern California area beaches and results in millions of dollars in public healthcare costs, according to a new study.

Previous studies have linked health problems to contaminated surf at individual beaches, but the new report is the first to examine illnesses at dozens of the nation’s most popular beaches, spanning 100 miles of shore in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Nearly 80 million visitors recreate in those waters annually.

The findings show that between 627,800 and 1,479,200 “excess” cases of gastrointestinal illness -- beyond the baseline number that would normally be expected -- occur at the beaches every year. The condition is most commonly associated with swimming in contaminated water and causes such symptoms as stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. The study did not examine prevalence of other sicknesses associated with exposure to polluted water, including eye, ear and nose infections.

Healthcare costs for beach-pollution illnesses are estimated to range from $21 million to $414 million annually, depending on the method of reporting used, researchers found. Those estimates include direct losses, such as lost time at work, costs for medical treatment or doctor visits, as well as so-called “psychic costs,” or the amount beachgoers would be willing to pay to avoid getting sick.


Researchers at UCLA and Stanford prepared the study, and their findings were posted on the website of the journal Environmental Science and Technology on Monday and are expected to appear in print Aug. 15.

“This helps us understand [the] risks and identify beaches where cleanup can yield the most benefit,” said Linwood Pendleton, a UCLA environmental economist and an author of the study.

Researchers found that beaches at Doheny, Malibu, Marina del Rey, Cabrillo and Las Tunas had the worst water quality, violating the state limit for Enterococci bacteria 33% of the time. Newport, Hermosa, Abalone Cove, Manhattan, Torrance and Bolsa Chica beaches had the best water quality, exceeding the bacterial standard less than 5% of the time. The three beaches with the lowest incidence of gastrointestinal illness were San Clemente’s city beach, Nichols Canyon and Las Tunas, largely due to smaller numbers of visitors there.

“There are places that are creating a lot of public health problems,” Pendleton said.


The findings are certain to stoke ongoing debate over the costs and benefits of cleaning up storm water runoff, the chief cause of dirty ocean water in Southern California. Runoff laden with oil, pesticides and human and animal waste flows from scores of disparate sources into storm drains and, ultimately, the ocean. Local governments are under cleanup mandates but have resisted given the high cost.

Jonathan Bishop, executive officer for the state’s Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the new study shows that it makes economic sense to treat water upstream before it reaches the coast.

“This is what we’ve been saying for the last five years,” Bishop said. “It’s expensive to address urban runoff, but the costs of not addressing it are even higher.”

He estimates that cleaning up bacteria-laced runoff entering Santa Monica Bay during summer would cost $1.5 million to $3 million.

The university study released Monday shows cleanup would prevent 394,000 to 804,000 gastrointestinal cases and save $13 million to $28 million in annual health costs in Los Angeles County.

Bill Rukeyser, spokesman for the statewide Water Resources Control Board, said California has spent about $51 million for 66 projects in the past six years to prevent bacterial pollution under its Clean Beaches Initiative.

Mark Gold, executive director of Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay, said he hoped that the study “makes people realize beach water quality is not just a significant public health issue, but it also has a substantial economic cost to society.”

The study was released two days after Southern California cities were supposed to have met stringent discharge requirements to comply with bacterial pollution standards at Los Angeles-area beaches.


Those limits were scheduled to take effect July 15 under a court settlement, but last week state water quality officials postponed action on the matter until September.

The UCLA/Stanford study focused on 28 beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties during 2000. Researchers used bacteria measurements from surf, considered beach attendance estimates and extrapolated the health effects using two computer models -- one favored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and another preferred by the World Health Organization.

Pendleton said the wide divergence in health and cost estimates occurs because one method relies on more precise controls to account for illnesses and environmental conditions and less on self-reporting, though both methods are used in epidemiological studies.

Pendleton identified two types of beaches that pose the greatest risk: those such as Doheny and Marina del Rey, which attract few visitors but have persistently high levels of contamination that greatly increase the odds of getting sick; and those such as Santa Monica’s, which have lower pollution levels but attract so many visitors that many people are bound to be stricken.


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Beach Q&A;

Question: What is gastroenteritis?


Answer: Inflammation of the stomach or intestines by bacteria commonly associated with exposure to polluted water. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are among the symptoms. Health experts recommend drinking plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration. If symptoms persist, seek medical help.

Q: Which Southern California beaches are most prone to bacterial contamination?

A: The new study shows that beaches at Doheny, Malibu, Marina del Rey, Cabrillo and Las Tunas had the worst water quality, violating the state limit for Enterococci bacteria 33% of the time. Newport, Hermosa, Abalone Cove, Manhattan, Torrance and Bolsa Chica beaches had the best water quality, exceeding the bacterial standard less than 5% of the time.

Q: Is beach pollution worse in winter or summer?

A: Bacterial contamination is worse in winter largely because of storm runoff. But more people are affected during the summer because of increased beach activity.

Q: What are regulators doing to address the pollution problem?

A: The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board last week postponed adoption of tougher enforcement of clean-water standards. It wants more time to review the problem before adopting measures that would make it easier to impose fines and cleanup orders on the county and cities around Santa Monica Bay that violate new limits on fecal coliform discharged into storm drains.


Source: Times reporting

Los Angeles Times