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Letter to the Editor: Beach Bacteria Advisories Based on Flawed Science

December 7, 2020, 10:02 AM HST
* Updated December 7, 10:03 AM
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The following is a letter to the editor. The contents do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Big Island Now or Pacific Media Group. It has been edited for grammar and style only, not for content. 

“Dear Editor,

Folks who pay attention to the Dept of Health (DOH) beach warnings may have noticed a distinct uptick in bacteria advisories over the last week. A review of the DOH online database shows this to be true. So what is going on? Are we having a rash (pun intended) of sewage spills? It is not likely at all.

A couple of years ago, I was watching the news from O‘ahu. They reported three Enterococci (ENT) warnings for beaches miles apart. At the same time, there was an advisory for Kahalu‘u Bay on our island. I thought that is no coincidence. What do these beaches have in common? The only thing I could think of was large surf events or big tides. A quick review of the tide charts confirmed it. Another examination of the science revealed how tide and significant surf events stir the sand below and release the resident ENT into the water, where it can be detected in the DOH sampling. These common bacteria have nothing to do with sewage flows and are the natural part of the sand microbiome (bacteria ecosystem).

This week we have had big tides and big surf, and once again, we see beach warnings suggesting health risks from possible sewage spills. In most cases, the advisories come down in two or three days as ENT levels decrease with settling and the lethal effect of solar UV light. A chronic sewage leak would not be such a short term event.

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We at the Kona Coast Waterkeeper understand that the DOH is legally bound to post beaches whenever the readings exceed the threshold. Failure to act could jeopardize the EPA funding for this project.

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The problem written into the US Beaches Act is the reliance on a very poor fecal indicator ENT. We can detect a few Coronavirus in my nose with great precision. It is four decades past time to develop a more precise and accurate test for our recreational waters. While the agencies kick the can down the road, we are working on that and seek the public’s support to expand our testing regimen. So far, our work here, and that of Surfrider on Kaua‘i, shows that the detection of sucralose, aka Splenda, offers a splendid first start. Splenda is sold in over 300 products, and it is excreted in human waste. It is remarkably stable in the environment, and there are no natural analogs to confuse the interpretation. By definition, the ENT test is a confused interpretation like detecting “fire ants” by counting all ants. That is just not scientific, and neither is counting ENT.”

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