Science in action: What do you do when you learn something new? Don't look to EPA's new beach pollution standards for a good example

Science is an emergent process.  Now, before your eyes glaze over with this wonky jargon, this just means is that science, as a body of knowledge and as a method for figuring out things, is always growing.  It continuously builds on a foundation of existing knowledge, advances in technology and the free flow of questions, ideas, critiques and new data.  Science can—and does—answer questions and provide actionable information for how we manage our health, our environment, and even our businesses.  But science is never done—it’s just the best way we have to figure out how to do things better.  Therefore, to ignore or dismiss relevant new information produced by science applied to a specific question is, in effect, to reject progress.


More than ten years ago, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was directed by Congress in the federal BEACH Act of 2000 (and subsequently prodded by a lawsuit from NRDC) to study the impacts to human health from swimming at polluted beaches and to use their results to develop new regulatory standards for allowable levels of disease-causing bacteria.  These standards (along with state standards) are used by local officials to determine whether or not a beach needs to be posted or closed to protect public health. 


EPA’s new health studies built off older studies from the 1970s and 1980s and took a more comprehensive view of the illnesses people experience from swimming in polluted waters.  Under the old definition of illness, a beachgoer who suffered from either vomiting, diarrhea with fever or a disabling condition (remained home, remained in bed or sought medical advice because of symptoms), or stomachache or nausea accompanied by a fever was counted as sick.  The new studies broadened the definition of illness to these same gastrointestinal ailments with or without fever.


Results of EPA’s new studies showed that, with existing levels of allowable pollution (35 colony-forming bacterial units per 100 milliliters of marine water, a bit less than half a cup), a lot more people were getting sick after a visit to the beach than they had thought.  In fact, more than four times as many people.  According to the EPA report: “The new definition [of illness] gives an estimate of illness that is 4.5 times greater than the old definition at the same level of water quality.”  To be clear, when the old 1986 standard was being developed by EPA, these people were still getting sick – they just weren’t counted as sick.  Now, thanks to information obtained through the EPA’s new studies, we know better. 


How has the EPA, responsible for “improving public health and environmental protection for beach goers,” responded to results of these new scientific studies?  Despite acknowledging that the risk of illness after a day at the beach is higher than previously understood, EPA proposes to keep the old water quality standard it adopted in 1986 and to weaken required monitoring protocols.  And, instead of providing a useful explanation to support retaining the old standard, EPA has: 1) treated the issue as a “communications challenge to avoid the impression that more illnesses are being tolerated when [the] water quality standard remains unchanged;” 2) tried to dismiss their new results, calling them not “appropriate for developing national recreation criteria recommendations at this time;” and 3) attacked critics of their proposal, like NRDC, for allegedly misrepresenting their study results (which, despite being written in the usual tortured scientific/government bureaucratese, are pretty easy to understand). 


According to NRDC’s 2011 Testing the Waters report, a near record number of beaches were posted or closed because of pollution in 2010.  But the beaches that are open are visited by millions of people who, according to the EPA’s new studies, will suffer gastrointestinal illness, with or without fever, at an average rate of 36 out of every 1000[1] from swimming in waters that just meet the current water quality standards intended to protect public health.  To put some more numbers on this problem, a 2006 study of just Los Angeles and Orange counties’ beaches found that between 627,800 and 1,470,000 people are sickened each year.  As NRDC said in 2006, “A day at the beach should not turn into a night in the bathroom, or worse, in the hospital.”


Thanks to research by scientists at EPA and elsewhere, we have new information and greater understanding of the public health consequences of polluted beach waters.  EPA should put its own good science into action and adopt modern water quality standards that move us forward to better protect public health. 

[1] This value is calculated as 4.5 times the rate of 8 out of 1000 illnesses with fever reported by the EPA.