The beach is where Southern California gives birth to its summers and perhaps nowhere so obviously as the placid inlets where babies and toddlers—the girls in bathing suits of frilly pastels, the boys in minibaggies—are brought to play in warm, calm water. Their parents look on protectively. They've slathered the kids with Baby Block SPF 3000, packed lunches, paid for parking and put up the umbrellas. The children gurgle and coo as they splash safely in the gentle ripples that lap against the sand. It's a beautiful scene.
But those parents could just as well save themselves the schlep, stay home and simply let their kids splash around in a fully loaded toilet. Beaches designated for children typically feature some of the dirtiest, and most dangerous ocean water in the county.
"If you see something called 'Baby Beach' or 'Mom's Beach' or 'Kid's Beach,' stay the heck away," warned Dr. Mark Gold, executive director of the environmental group Heal the Bay. "Don't be fooled by the names. These beaches seem to have the worst pollution."
That's because the same gentle surf conditions that ensure children won't be swept away also create stagnant waters where pollutants brew. Misguided by maternal-sounding names, parents baste their kids in an unsavory gravy of E. coli, fecal coliform, salmonella, shigella, cryptosporidium, rotavirus and enterovirus, just to name a few. These bacteria, viruses and protozoa can cause gastroenteritis, fever, diarrhea, respiratory infections, rashes and meningitis.
"There is no worse place to take your kid than a mother's beach," said Dr. Gordon LaBedz, a family physician who is also a leader in the Surfrider Foundation and chairman of the Sierra Club's Orange County and Los Angeles chapters. "The problem at these beaches is that you don't have surf and open ocean, but you do have urban runoff and a problem of bacteria in these stagnant pools of water for kids."
It's understandable that parents make this mistake, but there's no excuse for the fact that government agencies steer parents and their children toward these toxic stews. Call the visitors center of just about any beach community, tell them you have a couple of young kids you want to take to the shore, and they'll likely send you to the equivalent of a cesspool.
Until recently, the gunk in ocean swimming waters was barely monitored at all. But testing has been stepped up since the passage of Assembly Bill 411 in 1999, when bacteriological ocean-water-quality standards were added to the California Health and Safety Code. The Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA) is among several agencies that test water samples weekly at hundreds of California beach, bay, harbor and ocean locations. Now everybody who goes in the water can get a better idea of what else they're getting into—and it isn't pretty.
The dirtiest baby beach in Orange County is in Dana Point Habor, nestled in a scenic, U-shaped shoreline between a pair of storm drains that dump urban runoff right into the water where children play. These drains are the scariest kind. Because they are underwater pipes, they not only pour undetermined amounts—maybe one gallon, maybe 10,000 gallons—of polluted runoff into the still ocean water every day, but they also go unnoticed by much of the general public. In the past 22 months, county officials have posted warning signs at Dana Point Harbor Baby Beach 25 times. Recently, the warning sign was posted permanently.
Although not technically designated as a "baby beach," Newport Dunes attracts even more children. Its water quality is even worse. It has been posted with warning signs 45 times in 22 months.
The fact that these warnings are posted doesn't mean you'll see them, of course. People have ripped down the wooden signs to use as firewood or vandalized them beyond recognition. There was a time when the OCHCA regularly replaced them; now the agency has erected permanent, fiberboard signs stabilized by PVC posts.
But even when the signs survive, people don't stay out of the water. "People have just become immune to the impact of these signs—signs that are posted more often than not," said Wayne Baglin, a Laguna Beach councilman and board member of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has jurisdiction from Laguna Beach to the Mexican border.
The problem isn't even avoided in wealthy Huntington Harbour, where a stretch of strand designated Mother's Beach is near a storm drain, has been posted seven times in 22 months and was closed once during a sewage spill.
Doctors reasonably fear runoff because it typically contains motor oil, pesticides, antifreeze, metals, animal waste and other pollutants. Runoff is, in fact, the primary source of Southern California beach contamination.
Man-made storm drains aren't the only major culprits. The mouth of the naturally formed Aliso Creek in Laguna Beach is notoriously dirty. It has been closed five times in the past 22 months and recently earned a permanent posting. The creek runs approximately 14 miles from the Cleveland National Forest to the beach. But Baglin points out that Aliso Creek is often dry at its source, meaning that for much of the year, the water that flows in the channel is entirely urban runoff. Although not officially designated a baby beach, children like to play at the mouth of Aliso Creek. Four million gallons of water per day, almost none of it natural and none of it filtered, pours directly into the ocean—after coating the kids.
The same is true of the mouth of the Santa Ana River in Huntington Beach, another popular spot for parents and their kids. The Santa Ana River is the largest stream system in Southern California, winding its way through four counties and carrying to its mouth whatever has fallen or been thrown in along the way. It is permanently posted with a warning sign and has been closed twice in the past 22 months. As at all flowing creek mouths in the county, a permanent yellow-and-black-striped warning sign is posted at the mouth of the river. Lifeguards typically warn people out of the water, but when the lifeguard truck drives off, people often go right back in.
It's not just Orange County's waterfront playgrounds that are affected, of course. Baby beaches up and down the Southern California coast share the same disgusting conditions. According to James Alamillo, who publishes Heal the Bay's Beach Report Card, poor water quality is also likely at Mother's Beach and Alamitos Bay in Long Beach, Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, Mother's Beach in Marina Del Rey, and Ventura's Kiddie Beach. Several beaches in Mission Bay in San Diego—and even Avalon Beach on Santa Catalina Island—ought to be red-flagged on any parental map.
"The common thread that links all these swimming-pool-like atmospheres is low tidal circulation," Alamillo said.
Quantifiable evidence of the dangers of swimming in waters contaminated by urban runoff is sketchy—mainly because it hasn't been studied much. A 1996 effort by the University of Southern California and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project interviewed more than 15,000 swimmers and analyzed water samples at three beaches near flowing storm drains. The findings were clear: swimming near flowing storm drains greatly increased the risk of getting sick.
But the impact on young children swimming at baby beaches has barely been considered at all. OCHCA relies entirely on the anecdotal evidence of parents who have filed reports when their children became ill after swimming at a baby beach. During the past few years, only a few such cases have been reported. In August 2000, two children and two adults who swam at Newport Dunes called in with complaints of diarrhea and eye infections. A few months before, a 13-month-old playing in waters at Huntington Harbour's Mother's Beach contracted a cough, fever and thick, green, nasal discharge. In October 1999, a 10-year-old had complaints of blisters and a possible staph infection after swimming at the 18th Street beach in Newport Bay.
But such passive reporting is of little value. It depends on the perception and reaction of the people who have become ill after swimming in the ocean, whether they suspect their illnesses are related to their contact with the water and report it to OCHCA. Often, people who get sick after a long day at the beach are just as apt to blame it on the bologna sandwich as the shimmering tide pool where they frolicked. With kids, it's even subtler. Maybe they got too much sun. Or got too cold. Or missed a nap. Mothers running through their mental databases of causes rarely settle on the water, which they figure is safe. After all, they took their kids to a baby beach.
Some symptoms are subtler than a stomachache or meningitis. There's the case of Kayla, a four-year-old who went swimming in Newport Bay last summer. She emerged from the water itching so badly her legs bled. "I thought at first she was scratching her legs because of the sunscreen," said Laura Mandas, Kayla's mom. "But she doesn't itch like that when she swims other places, so it must have been the water."
So how can you feel safe taking your baby for a dip this summer? First, don't count on government officials to do the job for you. Most of their short-term fixes—like one plan to cork storm drains throughout the summer—"are just pissing in the wind," said LaBedz.
County agencies have invested millions of dollars trying to ameliorate the effects of pollution in children's ocean-swimming areas, particularly from May through October. Several storm drains feature "pillow plugs" or "butterfly valves" that either block or divert urban runoff. But these techniques are inadequate, Baglin claims.
"This archaic, mechanical system of putting the plug in and taking it out is just not satisfactory," he said. "In reality, there are about 30 days of the year when there is rain but about 300 days when people take their kids to these beaches."
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In other words, there are a lot of beach days when the drains are not plugged and pollution flows into the water unfettered.
For the time being, LaBedz advises that children keep their faces out of the water and wear earplugs while swimming. Heal the Bay offers an informative Report Card (www.healthebay.org) on pollution levels at beaches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Though the Report Card grades—updated each Friday—are based on previous weeks' testings, they'll give you a general idea of how good or bad your favorite beach is and where the postings and closures are. By the end of June, Heal the Bay will launch a Report Card that covers all beaches on the California coast.
OCHCA's Environmental Health website is located at www.oc.ca.gov/hca/regulatory/ocean/beach.htm. You can also call the hot line for postings and closures at (714) 667-3752. And, really—do we need to tell you to always obey warning and closure signs?
Then again, you could always consider installing a pool.