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Heal the Bay: Coastal Waters and Public Health:

The safety of swimming in local waters and eating local fish were the subject of a talk by Dr. Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay.

Gold began the November 28 lecture, held at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, by talking about bacteria. Runoff after rains sends a huge amount of pollution into the ocean. Since storm drains in Southern California are not connected to the sewer treatment system, human sewage is among the substances that can affect ocean water.

“We are mostly concerned with human sewage when it comes to swimming,” said Gold. Human sewage is the source of the various e coli infections that lead to stomach flu and other health problems

In 1999, Gold said, Heal the Bay conducted a study of about 20,000 beachgoers to find out if exposure to pathogens in the water had affected their health. Now, to update the data, a similar study is underway at Doheny, Surfrider, and Avalon beaches. The collection of data began last summer and will continue next year.

Last summer’s data revealed that tiny Avalon Beach, on Catalina Island, was the most polluted beach, with the area around Santa Monica Pier coming in second. Both beaches are affected by decaying sewer infrastructures, and Santa Monica was also impacted by sewage spills.

An audience member commented that he had seen signage at Avalon Beach warning of the contamination but beachgoers seemed not to notice.

Gold explained that a “Warning” sign does not indicate that a beach is closed (which is necessary for sewage spills). “If it’s a known spillage, there’s a yellow sign that says ‘Keep out.’ ” He added that Heal the Bay plans to meet with lifeguards to work on better communication of pollution dangers.

For safe swimming, Heal the Bay recommends waiting 72 hours after a storm to go into the water, avoiding areas 100 yards north and south of storm drains, and avoiding “enclosed” beaches without tidal circulation.

When it comes to consuming local fish, the one to watch out for is the white croaker or kingfish. Other fish that may be contaminated are barracuda, smelt, kelp bass, mackerel, and bonito.

The contaminants found in these fish are mercury, PCB, and DDT. Although the two latter substances have been banned for 30 years, the chemicals have seeped into ocean sediment and continue to affect marine life through the food chain.

What can be done? Gold said that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is most likely going to recommend some kind of “cap” over the areas where there is a concentration of contaminated sediment. In the meantime, Heal the Bay’s Anglers Program has been doing outreach to educate people who catch and consume the fish. Recommendation: don’t eat more than one or two meals a month of the fish mentioned above.

Overall, Gold concluded, there have been significant improvements over the years in efforts to maintain clean waters. But regulation, to him, is “the driver.”

Thanks to the passing of AB 411 in 1999, it is now a legal requirement for beaches to be monitored for water quality on a weekly basis from April through October. Heal the Bay publishes the results in its well-known weekly “Beach Report Card.”

Also, earlier this year, thanks to a vote by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, it is a requirement for beaches to not exceed a total maximum daily load (TMDL) of bacterial pollution.

“When there is a legal requirement, things change dramatically,” said Gold.

Heal the Bay and COSEE (Centers For Ocean Science Education Excellence) will be conducting more public talks about ocean quality in March, May, and August of 2008.

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