A surfer's guide to surviving polluted water

If you spend ANY time in the ocean, there are some things you need to know ...

by Hoyt Smith
onsider the lure of the chocolate tube: The days immediately following a storm are often when the surf is at its best. Unfortunately, it's also a time when sewage spills and urban run-off pollute the local shoreline, creating the highest risk of illness or infection. Yet few wave-starved surfers can resist the appetizing site of a brown, muddy barrel.
That chocolate tube may look good, says John Crumb of the Surfrider Foundation, but you don't want to eat it out there.
"Anywhere we have a storm water outfall, or a river mouth or lagoon opening, we suggest avoiding contacting the water for up to three days after it rains," says Crumb, who along with other Surfrider volunteers conducts weekly bacteria tests at eight surf sites in San Diego County.
Public health officials concur. There are numerous risks associated with surfing in sewage discharge, says Kathy Stone, Environmental Health Specialist with the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health.
"The number one threat is hepatitis, because you get it for life," says Stone. "Then there are intestinal diseases; ear and nose viruses and bacteria; sinus and ear infections; shigella, typhoid, cholera, E. coli and others I hate to think of. There may be some diseases out there we don't even know." Stone mentions a Navy diver who claims he contracted the flesh-eating streptococcus bacteria recently in San Diego waters, though experts from the Center for Disease Control say the possibility is highly unlikely.
Nonetheless, epidemiologists agree that new, drug-resistant diseases are appearing almost daily, and old diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis, once though extinct, are reappearing. Combine that trend with the fact that San Diego County has had more beach closures than any other County in the United States in the past two years (727 in 1993 alone), and the threat to public health is apparent. How many surfers are there in the local food service industry who may travel directly from polluted beaches to the restaurants where they work, exposing dozens of others to potential illness?
Another problem is that one can't assume that surfers will act in their own self interest. There is already a high risk factor inherent to the sport. Many surfers regularly chance drowning. Why should they fear the possibility of illness?
"I would say about 90 percent of surfers don't really care, or even know if there is danger in the water," says Crumb. Ironically it is surfers, more than anyone else in the ocean, who should be the most concerned.
There is very little dilution of pollutants within the surf zone, according to Oceanographer Mia Tegner of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "Because oncoming waves act to concentrate contaminants along the shore, coliform concentrations are often highest in the surf zone," says the marine research biologist.
Polluted waters aren't always obvious. Surfers shouldn't count exclusively on posted warning signs to deter them from contaminated surf. Though sewage treatment facilities are required by law to report leaks and spills, such problems aren't always immediately identified. Coliform testing often requires 72 hours, and it may take up to three days before a dirty beach is quarantined.
"You can't tell (polluted water) by looking at it," says Stone. "You can have the clearest water, and [the bacteria counts] can still go off the Richter scale. That's happened to me a few times at Mission Bay."
How then, can the surfer minimize his or her exposure to pollution-borne disease? Just say no to those chocolate tubes.
"Use some common sense," says Tegner. Avoid surfing near river mouths, bay and lagoon inlets, or drainpipes after it rains.
Obey all quarantine signs (you can get a ticket if you don't). Check with the lifeguard regarding beach closures, or contact the Surfrider Foundation. They now publish their water testing results in their bimonthly newsletter.
Additionally, it is probably wise to wear earplugs and avoid swallowing ocean water. Shower off with soap and water, as soon as possible after surfing in questionable waters. If an illness does occur and appears to be related to surfing, report it to the Environmental Health Department (see phone numbers on page 4). Support ecological-minded businesses and organizations. Get involved with Surfrider, the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups working to create long-term solutions.
"I think our ocean is basically in pretty good shape," says Tegner, who is an avid scuba diver. "That's not to say that we don't have problems, but by using common sense and working together, I think we can protect ourselves and our natural resources."

Hoyt Smith is a native San Diegan, free-lance writer and surfer. He lives with his wife in La Jolla.

Ocean Water Quality Phone Numbers

Beach & Bay Closures                        338-2073
Baily beach report (City of San Diego)      221-8884
San Diego County Environmental Health Dept. 338-2386
Surfrider Foundation                        792-9940