Environmental group worries EPA beach pollution proposal not strong enough

By | 02.07.12 | 10:01 am

The EPA seal (Pic via sentryjournal.com)

An EPA proposal to address pollution at U.S. beaches is designed to protect swimmers from illnesses brought on by pathogens in recreational waters, but the Natural Resources Defense Council argues that the proposal isn’t stringent enough, and will allow one in 28 beach-goers to get sick.

Some background, via the Defense Council:

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 required EPA to issue by 2005 recreational beach criteria “for the purpose of protecting human health” at coastal and Great Lake beaches. When EPA failed to meet this deadline, NRDC sued and secured a court order requiring EPA to follow the law. EPA’s new proposal claims to do this, but it is far less protective of the public health than current science and good public policy dictate.

So just how did we get here?

EPA says it is because the risks of highly credible gastrointestinal illnesses are acceptable at the levels of beach contamination EPA allows. These types of illnesses include vomiting, diarrhea with fever and stomachache or nausea accompanied by a fever. At the same time, however, EPA finds that 36 in 1,000 beachgoers (or 1 in 28 beachgoers) will suffer other types of gastrointestinal illnesses when they’re exposed to the same level of contamination. These other types of illnesses include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomachache – basically, the same as the priority illnesses EPA is focused on, just minus the fever.

According to the Defense Council, the proposal allows beach water test results to be averaged over a period as long as 90 days. Pollution reduction is only required if one in every four samples exceeds safe limits. Individual states, however, can do more — a blessing, says the group, since the EPA’s proposed approach “could mask a serious pollution problem and expose families to an unnecessary risk of illness without any required cleanup. ”

The EPA must update its existing standards (which are more than 20 years old) by October 2012, according to a federal consent decree. The current proposal is open for public comment till Feb. 21.

According to the Defense Council, illnesses associated with polluted beachwater include conditions like skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis. Current pollution standards, however, focus on gastrointestinal illnesses such as the stomach flu.

Last year, the Florida Department of Health announced plans to cut back on beach testing during winter months, to reduce spending. The EPA, however, recently awarded Florida a sizable grant to help local authorities “monitor beach water quality and notify the public of conditions that may be unsafe for swimming.”

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