A few weeks ago a few friends and I headed out to Manhattan Beach to hit the waves. I had spent a fair amount of time in Manhattan Beach, mostly drinking and chasing girls, but had never actually gone into the water.
From Hollywood, we took the 405 freeway and exited at Rosecrans, eventually finding a parking spot on 28th St. We walked a few blocks down and paddled out. The waves were decent, breaking close to the shore. On the way back, my friends hit the beach shower, but I declined. I felt fine, and I like the way the salt makes my hair look.
The next morning I awoke and stumbled into the kitchen. My roommate was making eggs (my eggs by the way) when he dropped his spatula.
"What the hell is that?” he blurted out.
"What?" I said, standing there, groggy and scratching myself.
He pointed in the vicinity of my entire body. From my shoulders down to my waist, I was covered in a red, puffy rash, making me look like an extra from “The Hills Have Eyes.”
Being a hypochondriac, I immediately rushed to my computer to figure out what terminal disease I must have had. My first thought was the water.
One of the first resources I found was the LA County Department of Public Health website.
I was covered in a red, puffy rash, making me look like an extra from “The Hills Have Eyes.”
The county monitors the water quality of most every beach in Southern California on a weekly basis, and is surprisingly thorough. For example, the area of Manhattan Beach is divided into four separate testing sites. One of these zones is "Manhattan Beach in front of the 28th St. Storm Drain," which is exactly where we were. On the ride in I specifically remember saying "Hey, should we surf at the Pier, or the 28th St. Storm Drain?"
Storm drains carry water runoff from the streets all the way from the mountains and directly into the ocean. Think if you rolled downhill from Glendale, and ended up somewhere in Long Beach. You'd be pretty filthy by the time you made it -- and such is the water flowing directly into our oceans.
Looking at the reports, I found that the area in which we were surfing was given a grade of C ... C? Would you eat at a sushi restaurant that had a C? Didn't think so.
On top of that, the county automatically puts out an advisory dissuading people from going into the water for three days after a rainfall. It had rained all week, but Friday was a beautiful day, and by the time I jumped in on Saturday, the rain could have been last month for all I knew. Plus, there were no signs to warn people of potential runoff contamination, and there were hundreds of people on the beach and in the water, so it seemed perfectly natural to get in. I'm quite sure nobody knew of any potential problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets the standards for acceptable water contamination, and are as follows: There can be a maximum of 35 disease causing pathogens per 100 milliliters of water. The standards don't require the water to be pristine to permit people to go in, just cleaner than the maximum allowable level. The criteria for what is an acceptable amount of contamination is somewhat ominous, as the EPA acknowledges that, even with the water at "Acceptable levels of pollution," an average of 36 per 1,000 swimmers will get sick from it.
That's one in 28! That means that if you go surfing 30 times, odds are you're going to catch something. The illnesses available vary from gastroenteritis (a run of the mill upset stomach) to more serious conditions, such as hepatitis and staph infection.
Of course, the water I was swimming in was cleaner than the maximum allowable level, but probably not by much.
That means that if you go surfing 30 times, odds are you're going to catch something.
As I said, the county actually does a surprisingly expansive job of monitoring the waters. For the area of Malibu alone there are 26 testing sites. Looking at the website, I found that the area just about 100 yards South of where I was surfing, near the Manhattan Beach Pier, received a grade of A. That means that the difference between getting sick or not could be a matter of taking a five-minute walk in either direction.
After looking through various medical sites, I determined that what I had was dermatitis, an irritation of the skin probably caused by oil runoff from the streets. (Here's another interesting fact: The county does not check for petroleum or other pollutants in the water, just for bacteria.)
The most effective ways to protect yourself are to never surf within three days of a rainfall, and to avoid surfing near storm drains (which is what I did.) The county's website, which is easily navigable, accurately notes exactly where the storm drains are located at each beach.
Maybe most importantly, hit the showers immediately after you get out of the water, even if your hair looks sweet beforehand.
In case you're curious, the rash went away after a few days of misery and a lot of Neosporin, and I'll be surfing again soon.