Health Threats from Polluted Coastal Waters

From Beachapedia

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The Surfrider Foundation, along with many county and state health departments, has always advised the public never to swim or surf within 72 hours after a rain. During these periods, the coastal waters are polluted with urban runoff and may also contain sewage from leaking sewer pipes or overflowing sewer manholes. In most places, especially heavily urbanized areas like Southern California, ocean water quality after a rain typically has high concentrations of bacteria and may also have high concentrations of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, heavy metals, and petroleum products.

In Southern California, most counties issue a 72-hour advisory after it rains. Unfortunately, they do not necessarily post physical notifications or signage at the beaches after a rain. The Orange County Health Care Agency has been quoted as saying, "We just assume all surfers know that the water is polluted after it rains." Surfrider thinks increased outreach must be done to warn surfers and other ocean recreation users of the risks.

If you feel you have gotten sick after exposure to polluted ocean water, you can report it at Surfrider's Ocean Illness Reporting Tool.

Global water pollution issues from Waterlogic's 29 Scary Facts About Global Water Pollution infographic.

Health Effects

A study cited in EPA's draft guidance document on water quality found that surfers and divers are at greater risk of illness from contact with contaminated beach water than are swimmers or waders. In addition, an epidemiological study in Santa Monica Bay found that there is an increased health risk when swimming within 400 yards of a flowing storm drain. In Southern California you will be hard pressed to find a stretch of surf that isn't near a storm drain.

Waters that are polluted may contain several different disease-causing organisms, commonly called pathogens. Enteric pathogens -- those that live in the human intestine - can carry or cause a number of infectious diseases. Swimmers in sewage-polluted water (or even just "normal" urban runoff) could contract any illness that is spread by migration and inadvertent ingestion of fecal-contaminated water.

Viruses are believed to be a major cause of swimming-associated diseases, and are responsible for many cases of gastroenteritis, hepatitis, respiratory illness, and ear, nose, and throat problems. Gastroenteritis (commonly referred to as "stomach flu") , which can also be caused by bacteria, is a common term for a variety of diseases that can cause symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, stomach ache, nausea, headache, and fever. Other microbial diseases that can be contracted by swimmers include salmonellosis, shigellosis, and infection caused by E. coli (a type of enteric pathogen). Other microbial pathogens found at varying concentrations in recreational waters include amoeba and protozoa, which can cause giardiasis, amoebic dysentery, skin rashes, and pink eye.

There is also what can be referred to as a "toxic cocktail" of pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and other pollutants that are not monitored regularly or have health effects that are not well understood. It is important to understand that the typical ocean water monitoring program used by most municipalities in California consists only of tests for total coliform, fecal coliform, and enterococcus bacteria. Other states typically only test for enterococcus (in salt water) or E. coli (in fresh water). No tests for viruses, hydrocarbons, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, metals, or other pollutants are routinely performed. This is another reason for the recommendations to stay out of the water for 72 hours after a rain and always keep away from flowing storm drains.

To learn more visit Surfrider's Clean Water articles and the Coastal blog posts on water quality.

Extreme Health Effects

Transworld Surf has published an article Seven Surf Sicknesses which are actually a mixture of illnesses and the pathogens that cause illnesses. Their list is: MRSA, Hepatitis A, Encephalitis and Meningitis, Gastroentiritis, Vibrio Vulnificus, Leptospirosis, and Unknown and Bizarre illnesses.

Personal examples of extreme health effects from exposure to polluted runoff and/or sewage spills include:

  • Long time Sunset Cliffs (San Diego) surfer Barry Ault contacted a massive staph infection and died within a few days of surfing after a major rain event.
  • In October 2016 CBS News reported that 67-year-old Mike Funk died from a vibrio vulnificus infection after entering the water at Assawoman Bay in Ocean City, Maryland with an open sore on his leg. Maryland health officials stated they they deal with at least 30 to 50 reports of vibrio each year–some fatal.
  • Chris O'Connel had a cut on his arm and went in Mission Bay, San Diego after a rain event. His arm became infected with the Streptococcus bacteria and he almost died. Three operations and two and half weeks in the hospital saved his life.
  • A member of the Long Beach Chapter of Surfrider Foundation became infected with the same bacteria after surfing near the San Gabriel River Mouth. Charles Moore of Long Beach was also hospitalized for two weeks.
  • A long-time Surfrider Legal Issues Team member nearly had to have his foot amputated after a blister (and subsequent surfing) turned into a nasty MRSA infection (see Staph Infections).
  • Mike Rhodes, another long-time Surfrider Legal Issues Team member, developed a massive ear infection and build-up of fluid in the inner ear after surfing in Del Mar, CA after a rain.
  • A young surfer was reportedly diagnosed with Bell's Palsey after surfing in the Cardiff, CA area shortly after a rain event.
  • Surfer Timmy Turner nearly died after an aggressive staph infection attacked his brain.

Marine Life is Affected Too!

Sea Otters, Dolphins and other marine life are also affected by pollutants that are discharged into the ocean. In fact, because they spend all their life in the ocean and subsist entirely on food from the ocean, they are more vulnerable to pollutants and infectious agents than humans. This National Geographic article explores some of the issues and specific pollutant threats.


Learn more about the problem with CSOs in NYC and how green infrastructure is being applied as a solution.

Some of this information was gleaned from NRDC's Testing the Waters reports.

A Threat to Human Health (American Rivers)

Effects of Sewage-Contaminated Water on Human Health, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS) at the University of Miami.

Balarajan, R., Soni Raleigh, V., Yuen, P., Wheeler, D., Machin, D. and Cartwright, R. 1991. Health Risks Associated with Bathing in Sea Water. Brit. Med. J., cited in USEPA's Implementation Guidance for Ambient Water Quality Criteria for Bacteria - 2004.

V. Cabelli Health Effects Criteria for Marine Recreational Waters. EPA-600/1-84-004, 1983.

R. Haile, et al. An Epidemiological Study of Possible Adverse Health Effects of Swimming in Santa Monica Bay. Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project, 1996.

This article is part of a series on Clean Water which looks at various threats to the water quality of our oceans, and the negative impacts polluted waters can have on the environment and human health.

For information about laws, policies, programs and conditions impacting water quality in a specific state, please visit Surfrider's State of the Beach report to find the State Report for that state, and click on the "Water Quality" indicator link.