From Behind the Scenes, Scientists Join the
Santa Barbara News-Press
By Scott Hadly
January 30, 2000
Using DNA studies, a team of UCSB scientists is attempting
to catalogue the full range of pathogens in polluted creeks.
Filtering 20 liters of water from Arroyo Burro Creek
down to a thimble of full extracted material, professor Trish Holden
and a group of graduate students working in her lab at UCSBs Bren School of Environmental Science, want to develop a fuller understanding
to the kinds of microbes in the water that can cause diseases.
"Well be looking at the whole community
of pathogens in the water," Holden said.
Her work is part of the long list of studies focusing
scientific attention on the ocean pollution problem. The research is
pushing policy makers to catch up with the new information about pollution
and its potential impacts on human health. Most recently, amendments
are being considered for a Beach Pollution bill now before the U.S.
Senate; that measure would require states to develop standards for pathogens
within the next three years.
Last year, Heal the Ocean and county environmental
health officials were involved in another type of DNA study, this one
looking at the sources of fecal contamination in Rincon Creek. The study
found that almost half of the fecal bacteria was from domestic sources
including 20 percent from humans. The study proved a significant amount
of human waste was getting into the creek.
Another type of DNA test, also sponsored by Heal the
Ocean last year, looked at water in Mission Creek. The test, done by
USC laboratory found traces of hepatitis viruses in the water.
The tests dont show if the viruses were alive
or dead, and there isnt any information about what level of virus
poses a risk for people. Similar studies at other beaches in Southern
California also found viruses.
Most disturbing was that viruses have been found in
the water that has tested clean for the bacterial indicator used in
"Frankly theres a lot we dont know about how viruses act in the ocean," said Jeff Young, co-director of Heal the Ocean. "And the tests show the weakness of current standards."
Current sampling measures certain types of bacteria
that are indicators of pollution and the potential for health risks,
but it doesnt measure the pathogens or viruses that actually cause
The standards, developed originally through epidemiology
studies done on bathers at New York beaches, give the approximate risk
of becoming ill through water contact.
A more recent study in Santa Monica Bay simply looked
at a group of 13,000 swimmers and surfers found that those who frequented
areas near storm drain outfalls where pollution is at its highest, were
50 percent more likely to become ill.
Despite the weaknesses in the standards, they are
useful, said Bob Meek, owner of the mariculture company Ecomar, which
also conducts pollution studies for the city of Santa Barbara and the
Regional Water Quality Control Board.
And the discovery of hepatitis in Mission Creek doesnt
concern Dr. Frank Alvarez, director of Disease Control and Prevention
for the countys public health agency. Although local surfers have
long complained of contracting skin rashes, sinus infection or gastrointestinal
illness from pollution, Alvarez said he has yet to find any surfers
who have gotten sick from surfing in polluted water here.
"If we are getting an outbreak of hepatitis or some other disease Id be worried, but we havent seen that," he said. "Ive attempted to follow up on reports from surfers, but I havent been able to make that connection yet."