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EPA beach pollution rules allow 1 in 28 to get sick

February 01, 2012|By Dean Kuipers | This post has been corrected, as indicated below
  • A surfer is dwarfed by large waves south of the Huntington Beach pier in January. New proposed EPA regulations regarding beach water quality don't seem to reduce the likelihood of illnesses caused by bacteria-contaminated water.
A surfer is dwarfed by large waves south of the Huntington Beach pier in January.… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Proposed new beach pollution regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meant to protect public health, instead would continue to allow lots of people to get sick, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.

The EPA proposal, released in December, would allow 1 in 28 beachgoers to experience some gastrointestinal illness after swimming, rather than the 8 in 1,000 that were previously acknowledged. It’s mostly a tale of numbers, but the NRDC is trying to force the EPA to better the odds.

The EPA is under a federal consent decree to update the standards by October 2012. The current proposal is open for public comment until Feb. 21.

The federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 required the EPA to issue by 2005 new criteria to protect beachgoers from the effects of polluted waters at the nation’s ocean and Great Lakes beaches. When the deadline passed, the NRDC sued and this new proposal is the result. However, activist attorneys claim the proposal does not update the standards that have been in place since 1986, but instead ignore new evidence that says those standards were failing.

“They’re supposed to be using the new science to come up with a determination of what’s protective of public health,” says Steve Fleischli, senior attorney at NRDC. "All they’ve really done is said, ‘Well, the 1986 numbers are fine.’ And we’re saying, ‘How on Earth can you say that’s fine when they’re one in 28?”

Under the 1986 standards, the EPA itself calculated that the acceptable level of pollution (35 colony-forming bacterial units per 100 milliliters of marine water) would cause serious gastrointestinal illness in 8 out of 1,000 persons. That means diarrhea and nausea with fever. Since those numbers were produced, however, new science says that other, more basic belly illnesses – without fever – total 36 per 1,000 at those contamination levels. That’s 1 in 28. The new EPA proposal acknowledges these numbers but does not change its recommendations for beach closures or postings.

The EPA, responding to these numbers, sent an email stating, "EPA’s draft national recreational water quality criteria are science-based values designed to protect swimmers from gastrointestinal illnesses due to exposure to pathogens in water bodies with a primary contact designated use. The criteria values for enterococci, a type of bacteria that can lead to a variety of public health impacts, represent a water quality standard that has largely prevented disease outbreaks related to water recreation activities in lakes, rivers, streams and at beaches since the mid-1980s when EPA first established the criteria. These values correspond with an illness rate of eight illnesses per 1,000 swimmers for gastrointestinal illnesses and fevers. The criteria are based on the best available scientific methods for creating national standards."

"A different illness rate that has recently been promoted by the Natural Resources Defense Council is associated with a water testing method that EPA does not feel is appropriate for developing national recreation criteria recommendations at this time. This alternative method may be appropriate to evaluate water quality at beaches where the method has already been thoroughly evaluated."

Moreover, the new proposal allows sampling for bacteria to be averaged over a 90-day period, which is basically an entire season. Thus, a bad week might easily be missed when swimmers should be kept out of the water.

Californians, rejoice: Our numbers are better than this. California requires that testing be averaged over a 30-day period, and some other states do, too.

“At a minimum, EPA should be moving the rest of the country toward California, not finding a lowest common denominator. You should really be moving toward the best performers, not the minimally performing states,” Fleischli added.

[For the record, 12:35 p.m., Feb 6: An earlier version of this post did not include comments from the EPA, which sent a response after the original post was published. These have now been included.]

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