FAIRHOPE — Environmental Protection Agency researchers say a day at the beach shouldn’t include risking exposure to harmful bacteria. But because current water quality testing takes 24 to 48 hours to complete, health officials are unable to make …
FAIRHOPE — Environmental Protection Agency researchers say a day at the beach shouldn’t include risking exposure to harmful bacteria. But because current water quality testing takes 24 to 48 hours to complete, health officials are unable to make quick decisions about whether the water is safe for swimming and other activities.
That’s where the National Beach Study comes in. The cooperative effort between the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the city of Fairhope is meant to aid in the development of a new generation of water quality tests. EPA officials say the new tests should provide results in two hours or less, making possible reliable decisions about the safety of beach waters the same day.
Visitors to the Fairhope Municipal Beach will play an important role in this study as a study team from WESTAT (a contractor working for the EPA) collects data at the popular hangout for sun worshippers.
Fairhope is one of a handful of marine beaches nationwide chosen for inclusion in this vital research. Its subtropical waters and nearby large population were selected to ensure the study includes a representative sample of U.S. beaches.
Dr. Tim Wade, with the EPA Office of Research and Development, said that as many as 6,000 beachgoers here will be recruited to participate in the study, which will take place each weekend through mid-July. Volunteers will be asked to provide information about their recreational beach activities and health status after their visit.
Also, the EPA will monitor beach water quality throughout the study to help understand the link between water pollution, swimming at the beach and people’s health. Wade said the federal study will in no way replace current Alabama Department of Environmental Management testing, which takes place at numerous points on both sides of Mobile Bay.
The survey process began May 25, just prior to the Memorial Day weekend. Four white tents bearing EPA logos were set up at different places so surveyors would have a base of operations.
The water quality tests used to sniff out fecal coliform and other contaminants will be conducted at three predetermined spots off the Fairhope beach, at two different depths (shin-deep and waist-deep). It is hoped this will somewhat replicate the conditions most adults and children encounter when entering the water.
“Swimming in water of poor quality can cause a variety of illnesses ranging from stomach problems to eye and ear infections. This study will help prevent these illnesses by giving health officials and beach managers the power to know the water quality sooner and therefore take actions to protect beachgoers” said Dr. Rebecca Calderon, study director.
Volunteers over 19 years of age who agree to take part in the study will receive $25 per household upon completion of the survey, but they may participate no more than once every 28 days. After the initial interview, they will receive a follow-up call 10-12 days later. All information will be kept confidential, Wade said, and after the call, your name will be deleted from EPA files.
“The support of the community and beachgoers is key. With their involvement, EPA’s science can provide the information that health officials and beach managers need to make decisions to protect public health,” said Dr. Al Dufour of EPA, a co-investigator of the research project.
Fairhope Mayor Tim Kant said the city is more than happy to help out. Citing the Fairhope Pier, which was closed for more than a year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of it, he noted an abundance of fecal matter had collected on the unused span.
“The birds were loving the pier when it was shut down,” Kant said. He added he often receives comments from residents concerned that feces from the small pond near the beach, where ducks and geese flourish, might contribute to contamination in the bay.
Wade said, “It’s tricky to differentiate the type (source) of pollution, but we’re working on a way to do it. For now, it’s time to bring these tests out in the real world situation and see how they do.”
The study at Fairhope will add data to National Beach Study research conducted in 2003 and 2004 at four freshwater beaches on the Great Lakes and one marine beach at Edgewater Beach in Biloxi. The Mississippi testing was interrupted in August 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.
Wade said the information will be compiled by early next year, but it will take a while longer for it to be peer-reviewed for general use and publication in a scientific journal.
For more information on the National Beach Study, entitled the National Epidemiological and Environmental Assessment of Recreational Water Study (NEEAR), visit www.epa.gov/nheerl/neear/.