Special ocean issue
Volume II, Issue 9: June 2010
Stanley Grant
Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications
This summer, surfers and swimmers will risk more than sunburn — the ocean could make them sick. UCI researchers are testing the waters and working to improve the detection, identification, measurement and elimination of coastal pollutants.
Stanley Grant
Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications
Biological sciences major Selina Singh studies ocean water she collected off Balboa Island. Researchers in Jiang's lab use such samples to measure fecal indicator bacteria at Southern California beaches.
Stanley Grant
Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications
In Jiang's lab, E. coli bacteria show up as purple stains the day after the water sample was taken near Balboa Island.

Toxic tides

Sunny Jiang, a UC Irvine researcher studying pollution in Orange County's coastal waters, recently got a graphic look at how swimming and surfing in the ocean can make people sick.

She and a team of graduate students charted incidents of poor water quality at Southern California beaches over a 10-year period and the number of ocean-related illnesses reported at the Surfrider Foundation website during the same timeframe. Each graph looked like a series of waves, and when the two were overlapped, their peaks and valleys matched up perfectly.

"The correlation was more than 96 percent," says Jiang, associate professor of civil & environmental engineering. "It's another indication that water quality definitely affects human health."

For those who play in the ocean off California's coast, pollution has proved to be a major bummer. High concentrations of disease-carrying bacteria have led to beach closures, sickened marine mammals and birds, and caused a host of illnesses in humans. Catch a wave and you could come down with a respiratory illness, rash or gastroenteritis, the unpleasant bout of vomiting and diarrhea associated with drinking contaminated water in Third World countries. It's no day at the beach.

Over time, as we tried to understand what was going on in coastal waters, people became more interested. ... It's impactful — this is where we live and recreate.

"I talk to a lot of surfers," says Jiang, who occasionally surfs and scuba dives. "Everyone has a story about getting sick from surfing, but if you look for real data, there's a gap. We haven't quantified the risk. We haven't explored the relationship between pathogens and their effect on people."

Located minutes from some of the world's prime surf spots, UCI is home to researchers like Jiang and Stanley Grant, chemical engineering & materials science professor, who've been working to change that.

Grant has been on a one-year sabbatical to study the role of urban communities in coastal pollution. "My goal was to write at least one paper that did not have 'fecal' in the title," he jokes.

It's not exactly the stuff of great dinner party conversation: He studies fecal pollution in surface waters to determine its sources. This can be challenging, because there are often multiple culprits, some — like sewage spills — related to human activity and some not — like bird droppings.

"I started this work 12 years ago. The Huntington Beach closures in 1999 piqued my interest," Grant says. "The collective response from other researchers was, 'Why would you study that?' It seemed like a local problem.

"Over time, as we tried to understand what was going on in coastal waters, people became more interested. We've developed a little field of researchers who take this very seriously. It's impactful — this is where we live and recreate. It's the interface between the ocean and our built environment."

The ocean is an important resource. The more we understand the risks, the more we can use it wisely.

Grant's research has already yielded results: His team investigated pollution in Avalon Bay, a popular tourist destination on Catalina Island, and found that the city's old, corroded sewer lines were leaking bacteria into the groundwater, which then seeped into the bay.

"Avalon spent millions fixing them," Grant says. "This is a concern in many places, but no one wants to spend money on sewer lines. A lot of infrastructure is decaying. It leads to sewage overflows and contamination."

It's especially risky to swim in the ocean after heavy rains, when storm drains can dump toxic urban runoff directly into coastal waters.

"Unfortunately, a lot of hard-core surfers are right there after a storm because the waves are the biggest," Jiang says.

Bacteria and viruses can be ingested when swimmers or surfers swallow seawater or inhale foam or spray.

Currently, beaches are declared unfit for swimming when the concentration of fecal indicator bacteria exceeds state standards. (Beach report cards can be found on the Heal the Bay website.) But detection methods are slow; warnings might not be posted until 48 hours after a pollution spike.

"We need a more rapid monitoring system so beach pollution is in sync with water quality reports," Jiang says. "It doesn't do any good to issue warnings two days late. By that time the water might be clear, but anyone who went surfing the day before could have been exposed."

Her group has developed a quick method of tracking bacteria and viruses in the water that's currently under review by the Environmental Protection Agency. If it's approved, county health departments could test the waters and issue timely warnings to beachgoers, Jiang says.

"The ocean is an important resource," she says. "The more we understand the risks, the more we can use it wisely." And paddle out when the surf's up without fear of coming down with anything.

—Kathryn Bold, University Communications