Staying Safe at the Beach

Swimming in the Bay

Unfortunate as it may be, humans can become ill from contact with polluted water found in Santa Monica Bay.

This fact was proven conclusively in 1995 through a groundbreaking epidemiological study designed to determine how exposure to ocean water bacteria relates to human illness. The study, which Heal the Bay assisted with, found that you are twice as likely to get sick swimming in front of a flowing storm drain compared to swimming in clean ocean water 400 yards away. The bottom line is that contact with ocean water with high bacteria levels increases one’s risk of getting sick.

The two most common illnesses contracted from contact with polluted ocean water are stomach flu & upper respiratory infections. Additional problems can include skin rashes and ear, nose and throat infections.

Wait at least 72 hours after a rain storm

When it rains, pollutants that have been accumulating on the streets and in the catch basins get whisked through the storm drain system to the ocean, dramatically increasing bacteria levels in the Bay. Heal the Bay recommends avoiding all ocean water contact during a storm and waiting at least 72 hours (3 days) after it has stopped raining before going into the ocean as well as avoiding storm drain impacted and enclosed beaches for 5 to 10 days after a storm. This provides time for bacteria levels to return to safe levels. And remember, over 95% of the time beaches along the Santa Monica Bay are safe in dry weather.

Avoid flowing storm drains

Swim at least 100 yards away from where the storm drain flow enters the surf. You are twice as likely to get sick if you swim in front of a flowing storm drain due to increased bacteria concentrations from urban runoff.

Do not play in storm drain puddles

Shallow puddles of water on the sand between a storm drain and the surf may appear safe, warm and inviting for children, but this water is urban runoff, filled with bacteria that can cause illness. Although there may not always be warning signs surrounding puddles of urban runoff, this water is never safe for swimming.

Avoid enclosed beaches

Many beaches named “Mother’s Beach” (e.g. in Marina del Rey, Los Angeles County) or “Baby Beach” (in Dana Point, Orange County) are enclosed with poor tidal circulation. Bacteria levels are usually much higher and tend to survive longer in duration at enclosed beaches than those exposed to the open ocean due to the lack of water circulation. Although enclosed beaches appear safe and inviting to children, parents should research water quality conditions carefully before allowing their children to swim at these beaches.

Eating Fish From the Bay

Is it safe to eat fish from Santa Monica Bay and Southern California coastal waters? It can be if you follow our precautions.

Many people catch and eat fish from the waters off the coasts of L.A. and Orange counties. Because fish from these areas may contain DDT, PCBs and methylmercury, people who consume such fish may be ingesting these chemical contaminants and putting their health at risk.  Heal the Bay’s Angler Outreach workers spend their days on local piers, talking to subsistence fishermen about how to avoid contaminated fish and lessen their exposure to these chemicals.

To safeguard your health when consuming fish caught in Santa Monica Bay and surrounding coastal waters, use the information below to reduce your risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. For additional information, visit the Fish Contamination Education Collaborative.

Avoid white croaker

White croaker (also called kingfish or tomcod) generally contains higher levels DDT and PCB than other fish from the Santa Monica Bay area. This is primarily because the white croaker is a non-migratory fish that feeds off the ocean floor where these chemicals have settled. In fact, a 1997 Heal the Bay study on the white croaker found that an astounding 84% of the samples tested exceeded EPA’s “acceptable cancer risk level” for DDT.

Avoid fishing in contaminated areas

Several areas exist along the coast of Los Angeles and Orange counties where fish are likely to contain higher levels of DDTs and PCBs than those fish caught outside of these areas. These contaminated areas include Cabrillo Pier, White Point, Pier J, Belmont Pier and Point Vicente. The highest levels of DDTs and PCBs in ocean sediment are found about one to three miles offshore of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Follow the consumption recommendations 

Heed the Fish Consumption Recommendations, which shows how much of each fish caught from the different zones in the Bay one can safely eat (brochures and pocket guides). Since chemicals can pose greater health risks to babies and young children, it is particularly important for women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and nursing mothers to follow the fish consumption recommendations.