Can Surfing in Polluted Water Kill You?

A surfer showers post-session at Malibu's Surfrider Beach, one of California's most polluted beaches after a rainfall.?
A surfer showers post-session at Malibu's Surfrider Beach, one of California's most polluted beaches after a rainfall.?Carlo Allegri / Getty

On Christmas Day, long-time surfer Barry Ault died a few days after surfing one of his favorite breaks at San Diego's Sunset Cliffs. According to local news, Ault suffered a severe Staph infection, which some believe he contracted from sewage-polluted waters around Sunset Cliffs. Ault's final session came just a few days after a heavy rainstorm sent run-off from the San Diego River and nearby storm drains into the ocean.  

It's rare for a surfer to become fatally ill from polluted water. But, the risk of bacterial infection from run-off, especially in urban areas, can still make you sick and health officials recommend staying out of beach waters for 72 hours after a rainstorm. 

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The bacteria that caused Ault's infection, Staphylococcus aureus, commonly lives on the human body. An underlying illness or compromised immune system can turn its presence into a medical emergency, but "for most people, Staphylococcus aureus is going to be nothing. It just sets up shop in their nose, not doing anything," says Dr. Caitlin Pepperell, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In February of last year, Ault reportedly had a heart valve replaced, which may have left him vulnerable to infection. Staph infections are typically treatable with antibiotics, but Ault's underlying conditions may have made them less effective. 

The Dangers in the Water
Ault's case is something of an anomaly, because Staph infections are not typically associated with exposure to polluted ocean water. For the most part, water that has been tainted by nearby city sewage will expose you to E. coli and gut pathogens. The dangers are compounded but the fact that coral and other marine life often lead to cuts on the skin, which open you up for infection. 

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Indeed, many surfers have experienced flu symptoms or skin infections after exposure to run-off. Surf photographer Seth de Roulet recently suffered a skin infection on his toe, diagnosed as Staph, after a December photo session in Oxnard, California. The infection meant a trip to the ER to lance the resulting boil and a round of antibiotics.

"In Tahiti, I got it on my face, but this time it was my foot," says de Roulet. "I woke up in the morning and my big toe felt like I had an ingrown toenail. As the day went on, it felt worse and worse and by evening it started to fill up with pus. Then, around 11 PM, the front half of my foot started to go numb, so I went to the E.R."

The Source of the Pollution
Storm drains and rivermouths on densely populated coasts like Southern California are a breeding ground for bacteria of all kinds. After heavy rainstorms, that bacteria washes straight into the surf line-up.

The risks of ocean pollution to surfers are acute in Southern California, but beaches elsewhere are not immune. In many East Coast cities, the storm drains and sewers are not separated. Both the storm run-off and sewage runs through the same set of pipes (commonly called combined sewer overflow).

"When it rains, they can overflow and then they dump sewer water into the beaches," says Kira Redmond, the executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, a non-profit who monitors water quality and advocates for cleaner beaches.

Some cities may also have aging sewer systems whose pipes leak into the ocean or other waterways. In Santa Barbara, for example, the sewer system is more than a hundred years old. The oldest pipes were built from clay or tar paper, which are less durable and more likely to leak than the PVC plastic that is commonly used today.

When It’s Safe to Paddle
"In general, the more it rains, the more pollution washes into the ocean," says Surfrider Foundation scientist Rick Wilson.

Redmond agrees: "The general rule of thumb is that you should stay out of the water within three days of a storm," says Redmond. "You should also stay at least 50 yards away from any drains."

If you just can't resist the firing sandbars at your favorite break after a rainstorm, Wilson suggests showering off as soon as possible after your session. Wash your hands before heading off for that post-surf burrito, too. Bacteria from polluted water can easily transfer to your food and cause illness.

In addition to staying out of the water after rainstorms, keep tabs on your local beach's water quality. In California, county officials are required to do weekly testing for bacteria at the state's most heavily used beaches and to make the results available to the public. The San Diego County site, for example, provides test data and a map detailing the location of storm drains at area beaches. You can also visit the Environmental Protection Agency's beaches website for a full U.S. directory of beach water-quality reports. 

You can also track water quality for your favorite beaches with a phone app, the Waterkeeper Swim Guide. The app covers California and many beaches throughout North America and uploads data provided by local authorities. "It'll tell you what the current water quality of the beach is," says Redmond. "I'd definitely recommend checking that out before you go to the beach."

Cleaning up the Water
Over the long term, non-profits and government officials are working to reduce run-off, clean up watershed pollution, and improve water treatment processes. In San Diego, for example, the city has adopted a long-term plan to recycle waste water, which eventually will help ease drought conditions and limit run-off to the ocean. New regulations meanwhile will require coastal cities in California to ensure that all water that empties into the ocean is treated and clean regardless of its source. In the New York City harbor, where combined sewer overflow is a massive problem, there’s currently a $60 million plan to clean up the water with billions of filter feeding oysters. 

"The good news is, there is measurable progress being made," says Wilson. "It's frustrating, because it's so gradual and it does take so long, but my experience in the last ten years is that there has been gradual improvement. And, you know, it doesn't do Barry Ault any good, but hopefully, it'll do the rest of us some good."

Four Easy Ways to Avoid Infection From Polluted Waters

  • Wait 72 hours after a storm before entering the water.
  • Check the water quality online through the EPA or with the Waterkeeper app.
  • Stay at least 50 yards away from storm drainage pipes.
  • Shower immediately after your surf session and before you eat.

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