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The Informed Parent

Ocean Water And Your Health

by Shanna R. Cox, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jul. 17, 2006

It's that time of year again when school is out, the temperatures are rising and people are heading to the beach. In Southern California we are especially lucky to have some of the most beautiful and plentiful coastlines in all the country. Unfortunately, the ocean water at our beaches is not always as pristine as it appears. Water quality in the ocean can be significantly altered in ways that can seriously affect the health of your family. By learning about the potential hazards associated with ocean water and how to avoid them families can decrease the chances they will become ill after a day at the beach.

The first step to learning about the dangers of ocean water is to realize that it is contaminated and polluted by many differing sources. This is the reason families should be aware of measurements of water quality at their local beaches.

There are state standards for three types of bacterial "indicator" species that are used to grade water quality. Thus, it will be determined whether or not a beach will remain open, contain warning advisories, or will be closed until retesting. These water quality tests are performed weekly. The results for a particular beach can be found on the Long Beach Department of Public Health's website: or by calling their hotline at (562) 570-4199.

When signs are posted or a report is available for your beach that state it is closed, you should not swim in the water or allow children to play in the breakwater. Advisory and rain advisory notations indicate an increased risk of illness associated with above average levels of bacterial components found during routine water testing. It would be safest to avoid water contact during these times as well. This does not mean the sand or beach area itself is dangerous unless otherwise noted. Picnics or a smash ball game may still be enjoyed as long as water contact is avoided.

The bacterial indicator items are mandated to be tested weekly. In addition there are many other infectious agents that may be found in ocean water that are not routinely tested. These may include Hepatitis A, multiple types of viruses, as well as parasites. The chances of contracting these illnesses are increased after a rainfall when the ocean is exposed to increased runoff from storm drains. Consequently, it is best to avoid contact with ocean water for at least 72 hours after a major storm. Also, do not allow children to play in areas of drain runoff as these are particularly likely to contain increased amounts of bacteria, virus, and parasite loads. Finally, immunize your family against Hepatitis A, a virus that affects the liver and is endemic in California.

Another advisory that exists for your family's protection is the alert to the presence of red tide. These signs may be noticed alone or in conjunction with the aforementioned warnings. Red tide is the description of an overgrowth of the algae that is a natural part of the ocean environment. This overgrowth changes the color of the water so that it may appear red. It is due to the algae having a surplus of nutrients stimulating its growth. These nutrients are pollutants. Therefore, a red tide usually correlates with a decrease in water quality and an increase in the risk to your family's health. It is best to avoid contact with ocean water under these conditions. Exposure to red tide may at the least cause the nose and eyes to burn and a dry cough to develop. At the most one could develop a more serious illness related to one of the potential bacteria, viruses, or parasites thriving under the red tide condition.

By paying attention to the above information your family will be more likely to enjoy the beach for its recreational gifts rather than its illness producing potential. If there is ever any confusion about the status of a beach you are attending remember the lifeguards are there to assist you and inform you whether or not the water is safe. And don't forget the sunscreen!

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