The Science of Surf Remedies: Polluted Water

San Diego environmentalist Paloma Aguirre on post-rain surfing

A cross-section of a prokaryotic cell, as depicted in the upcoming scientific journal Invisible Monsters: Man's Struggle Against a Miniature Nemesis. Illustration by Todd Prodanovich

For our April issue, themed “The Science of Surf,” we tackled complex topics such as technique, genealogy, bathymetry, wave pools, hydrodynamics, and stoke. As a supplement to the issue, we have consulted experts in the field on how to handle some of surfing’s unpleasant side effects in our Science of Surf Remedies. For more on the science of surf, check out our April issue, available on newsstands now.

Chapter 2 — Post-Rain Surfing

We’re all familiar with the thought process, which goes something like this: it rained this weekend—but the swell is peaking. The water looks OK. The wind is offshore, and the nearby river mouth is firing. It wasn’t the first storm of the season, and there’s nobody out. Is going for a surf worth the risk?

Paloma Aguirre is a program manager and the lead spokesperson on water quality issues for the San Diego-based environmental organization WiLDCOAST. Aguirre says that post-rain ocean water can be contaminated with a variety of things, including but not limited to pesticides, urban runoff, and animal or human wastes, all of which are capable of causing illness.

Most official county advisories warn to avoid contact with the water for 72 hours after a heavy rain, a three-day buffer to allow the collective runoff to thin to healthy levels. Also, government health departments advise to avoid contact with ocean water near storm drains, creeks and rivers, which collect the runoff and spill it out to sea.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health centers its water quality testing around storm drains from Redondo to Malibu, having identified these areas as hot spots. In San Diego, the Department of Environmental Health closely monitors the southern area by the Tijuana River, where runoff from Mexico ends up in the Pacific. Clearly these are areas to avoid after a downpour.

Aguirre says the risk stems from ingestion of polluted water as much as it does from exposing open wounds to it. The bacteria and viruses in polluted water have the potential to cause a variety of infections; Aguirre states that ear, eye, skin and gastrointestinal are the most common, and manifest themselves in symptoms including skin rash, vomiting and diarrhea, and can cause potential sicknesses like hepatitis, stomach flu and respiratory infections. There, in the fine print, lies the predicament: There may be waves today, but will this potentially sick session actually get me sick? Most surfers can justify ignoring these warnings, leaning toward instant gratification rather than being prudent.

Anecdotal evidence shows that some of the biggest misconceptions about the topic come from surfers themselves, says Aguirre. “Surfers sometimes believe that they are immune to ocean-related illness, because they have been surfing that same spot for years, or that the water quality is not as bad as it is hyped up to be.”

There are plenty of pseudoscientific hypotheses at play with surfers and this topic, and they are hardly rooted in research. There’s the theory that only the first storms of the season really contaminate the water, which assumes these initial rains collect the most waste from the streets and sewers, and thus “cleans” them for later storms. Also, that hot and sunny days help to kill the bacteria with UV exposure, or that vitamins, up-to-date immunizations, Emergen-C or some other holistic remedy can suffice to fight infection. Although these theories certainly sound believable enough when the waves are firing, there isn’t much evidence to back them up.

San Diego surfer Chris Schumacher is a testament to the dangers of surfing in contaminated water. He contracted a serious soil-borne bacterial infection in his eye socket after coming in contact with polluted ocean water. Chris had to undergo emergency surgery, almost losing his eye in the process. It’s an extreme example—a horror story of sorts—but it does serve to graphically illustrate the potential danger.

We create the mess in our dense, coastal populations, and like the storm drains warn, it all ends up in the ocean. As a surfer, you can heed the warning, and consider your 72 hours of wave abstinence some quasi-sacrifice to atone for your waste. Or, roll the dice and err on the side of immunity and modern medicine. The only surefire way to avoid the risk is to avoid the water. But alas, the same can be said for drowning and shark attacks, and those risks hardly keep us dry.

Up next: Jellyfish stings with Bondi Beach Lifeguard Terry McDermott

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