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One of the core functions of government is to provide for public safety.  

Unfortunately, in recent weeks the entire country has been witness to the absolute breakdown of this core function as the government at all levels has failed the City of Flint, Michigan.

For over a year, government officials knowingly ignored public complaints and valid scientific and public health data that should have at least prompted them to investigate the problem further. Had they done their jobs with more due diligence and with a real concern for the well-being of the people they were sworn to serve,, they would have likely shut down the source that was delivering lead contaminated water into the homes of this small city.

Flint is one of America’s poorest cities, with 41 percent of its residents living in poverty.  And it is Flint’s children who will pay the biggest price.  Lead is very harmful to the developing brains and nervous systems of children. Simply from drinking water — a basic human need — many of the children of Flint will now suffer the effects of lead poisoning, which can cause severe mental and physical impairment. All of this could have been avoided if the responsible government officials and agencies had worked harder to protect the public health and safety of all their City residents.

While the water crisis that has developed in Flint is heartbreaking, it is the decision of government officials to ignore a danger to public health, well-documented by citizen outcry and scientific data, that sends tremors across the nation. We’d all like to think that there are government programs in place to ensure the water we drink, use to shower and even swim in will not cause us to get sick. Flint pokes a big hole in this belief…and makes us realize that our elected officials are not always making decisions that serve to protect public health and safety.

Swim At Your Own Risk

Did you know that over 20,000 swim advisories and beach closures are issued every year in the U.S., yet up to 1.5 million people get sick annually from swimming at polluted beaches in Southern Cplanet expertsalifornia alone? We don’t even have the information available to know how much of a problem this is nationwide. That’s right. No one is tracking the issue on a national level.

Concern over the safety and cleanliness of water at the beach is what caused a group of dedicated surfers to form the Surfrider Foundation over 30 years ago, and it is one of the driving concerns that keeps our activists across the nation motivated to demand more from our government officials to protect public health at the beach.

During the fall of 2009, Joe Mairo, a high school biology teacher and a member of Surfrider’s Jersey Shore Chapter, developed a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection on his leg after surfing in murky water. Yes, it’s as gnarly as it sounds. He ended up in the hospital on IV antibiotics before he could get his infection to heal. After hearing similar stories of ear infections and nausea told by his students and other local surfers, he realized no one was gathering any information on ocean-caused illnesses in his community. So Joe launched a website to gather this type of health exposure information and shared it with the New Jersey State Department of Environmental Protection.  

Surfrider now maintains an online database where surfers and swimmers across the U.S. and internationally can record ocean-related illnesses.

It goes to show that if state and local government agencies aren’t doing all they can to protect public health, Surfrider volunteers will take the lead. Not only are we collecting health information, we are  in the water, at the beach, and in the streams, rivers and polluted runoff that flows to the beach, to determine if bacteria levels are safe for recreational exposure.

Through our volunteer-led water quality program, the Blue Water Task Force, Surfrider chapters are providing valuable public health information to local communities so people know where it is safe to surf, swim and play in the water.  Fortunately it doesn’t always take a nasty staph infection to prompt people to stand up and take action.

Niel Dilworth, a retired swimmer with an affinity for swimming in the ocean, realized something wasn’t right at his favorite beach when the water he was swimming in smelled and tasted like sewage. He decided to get involved with Surfrider and now runs the San Luis Obispo Chapter’s Blue Water Task Force program. Currently Niel is diligently working to build community awareness of local pollution problems and bring together local decision-makers and academic researchers to investigate the source of pollution that is contaminating the San Luis Obispo Creek and some area beaches.

On the island of Kaua’i, Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force program tests over 25 surf breaks, estuaries and freshwater streams in order to provide water quality information to the public at popular recreational sites where the Hawaii State Department of Health is not testing. Why isn’t the state charged with monitoring ALL of it’s public waters? Unfortunately, state water testing programs that are funded through the federal BEACH Act program, concentrate efforts on official bathing beaches only; beaches that typically have lifeguards on duty.

Yet, in most states, surf breaks and the calm, shallow streams that are favored by small children, are not tested at all. For the past seven years, the Kaua’i chapter has been documenting several cases of severe and chronic contamination in several island streams through their volunteer-led water testing program. In 2015, seven streams — ones that families and children commonly choose to splash around in — failed to meet public health standards over 90% of the time they were tested. Four of those streams failed health standards every single time they were tested, with the most egregious site being the Waiopili Stream that exceeded health standards 100% of the time, with average bacteria levels 287 times greater than would be required to post a swim advisory at an official bathing beach. The statistics are more than alarming — they are truly dangerous.

Unfortunately the families and children who love to play in these streams as they flow across the beach don’t know to stay away. Why?  Because the State refuses to post warning signs or investigate the problem — despite pleas from the local Surfrider chapter and the convincing scientific evidence that demonstrates a real public health concern.  

While Surfrider will continue to apply pressure to the HI Department of Health to do its job and protect the health of beach-goers, there is a way you can help make sure a day at the beach won’t land you in the hospital.

For the last four years, President Obama has proposed to eliminate federal funding for the EPA BEACH Act grants program — the main source of funding for  water quality testing and public health protection programs at beaches across the country.  If communities lose this funding, we will see beach testing programs in many states completely stop. To help ensure this doesn’t become a reality, Surfrider has been working hard to build support in Congress to save funding for this valuable yet relatively inexpensive program, and thus far we have been successful.

We expect the President to  release his budget proposal for 2017 within the next month or so. Given the unfortunate and completely avoidable water quality crisis that is unfolding in Flint, Michigan, now is a good time to remind him of the government’s role in protecting public health and safety.

Please join Surfrider in sending an email to President Obama and the EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy, and ask them to support continued funding for the BEACH Act.

You and your family deserve to know if a day at the beach will make you sick.

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