Saturday, August 2, 2014

Beach safety, recreation, economy take center stage at event urging passage of rapid beach water testing

Area officials, environmentalists and business leaders today urged passage of  legislation by Senator Marty Block (SD-39) permitting county public health officials to use an “early alert” test that would allow same day test results of beach water quality.

“SB 1395 safeguards the public and protects local economies,” Block said. “We want the public alerted to any health danger as quickly as possible. We also want beaches reopened as soon as possible for visitors to enjoy once safety is assured.” He noted that over the Memorial Day weekend more than 450,000 people enjoyed San Diego’s beaches and that statewide 238 million beach-goers enjoy California’s beaches annually.

Swimming, surfing or participating in other water activities in polluted water can result in stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis. California Coastkeeper Alliance states that every year approximately one million Southern California beachgoers contract gastrointestinal illness from exposure to polluted coastal areas at a public health cost of $21 to $51 million.

The County of San Diego is sponsoring SB 1395. “Our beaches define San Diego, and San Diegans expect them to be safe,” said County Supervisor Greg Cox. “That is why we must continue to improve our beach water testing and get same day results. This bill allows us to do that.” Cox advocated for the legislation.

The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce is supporting the measure. “There’s no doubting the importance of the beach to San Diego’s tourism and economy," said Jerry Sanders, President and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Our beaches are a point of pride for our city and having the ability to quickly determine the safety of our beaches is important to tourists, residents and the many businesses that depend on the beach and beach-goers. The Chamber appreciates Senator Block’s leadership on this bill that will benefit San Diego. ”

Under the state’s Beach and Bay Water Quality Monitoring Program, county public health departments perform beach water sampling and close beaches or post warning signs if water quality does not meet state standards. Current permissible tests are culture-based involving a multiple sample standard for three indicators – total coliform, fecal coliform and enterococcus. Test results are typically available in 24 to 48 hours – and sometimes as long as 96 hours – leaving beachgoers at risk before results are obtained.

To address the current waiting period for results, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified an alternative testing method, the qualitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) test which shortens the result waiting period to four hours, a significant time savings.

“We want to protect people as they play in the ocean and visit waterfront businesses, but today's best information uses yesterday’s water quality,” said Megan Baehrens, Executive Director of San Diego Coastkeeper. “With this rapid test, we’ll know if water is safe right now--only four hours after the test. This has huge health and economic implications.”

Block’s bill would authorize local health officers to use the current or future rapid tests to determine beach water quality. The jurisdiction must first perform the tests side-by-side with the currently approved culture-based assessment over an entire beach season to determine that the tests are a reliable indicator of public health standards. Additionally the new tests must be performed in compliance with the federal EPA’s established guidance and with oversight by the California Department of Public Health.

Serge Dedina, Ph.D., executive director of WILDCOAST and author of “Wild Sea,” also underscored the importance of quicker test results. “By helping to close and open our beaches quicker,” SB 1395 will protect the health and safety of beach-goers throughout San Diego County as well as our economy.”

In addition to the County of San Diego, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, the California Coastkeeper Alliance and WILDCOAST, SB 1395 is also supported by the California Association of Environmental Health Administrators and the Surfrider Foundation.

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