The Inertia Health Editor
If the water looks like this, think twice about paddling out. Photo: Jeremy Hall.

If the water looks like this, think twice about paddling out. Photo: Jeremy Hall.

The Inertia

El Niño is in full effect, and surfers are reaping the benefits and consequences of the weather pattern. “The boy” typically comes an abundance of winter swell and a very wet, rainy winter, and this season he has not disappointed. This past weekend definitely showcased the power of El Niño in California, with pumping swell on Friday and a heavy winter storm Saturday and Sunday. While most of the country mocks California for its “weather” (winter coats are broken out when temperatures dip below 70 degrees), this weekend saw plenty of fallen trees, record breaking winds, flooding, and power outages. However, by this morning, the skies were blue, the air was clean, and the sun was shining. All appears to have returned to normal, and as conditions clean up today and tomorrow, surfers will no doubt return to the water.


With the last couple dry winters, Californians are apt to forget the consequences that accompany a big storm. When the 72-hour warning goes into effect with each passing drizzle, it can be easy to dismiss the no-surf period as unnecessary. However, now that now that proper storms are rolling through, there is a real health risk associated with paddling out too soon after the rain. “An average 1-inch of rain from a storm can create about 1 billion gallons of runoff in LA county storm drains. That’s about 120 Rose Bowls worth of dirty water that goes into the ocean,” says Dana Murray, Heal the Bay’s Senior Coastal Policy Manager for The Corsair. In other words, it doesn’t take a lot of rain to add up to a TON of runoff.


The quality of the runoff is also affected by the terrain of the region. When the watershed area is paved over in urban areas (like most regions in Southern California) with concrete or asphalt, the water can no longer be absorbed into the soil. Instead, it flows directly to the ocean, especially since most storm drains in Southern California are not directed to a water treatment facility. Additionally, pollutants accumulate on these paved surfaces during the dry season (or in California’s case, the past 5 years), and they’re washed directly to the ocean during a heavy rain.


To sum it up, California is finally seeing some rainfall, and this means real dirty water. But how does dirty water actually affect your health? The answer is in a multitude of ways. Most runoff  contains pathogens originating from fecal bacteria. In other words, when you’re surfing in that chocolatey brown water you’re truly up to your elbows in sh*t. This bacteria, in addition to plenty of others commonly cause the diseases below:


Gastroenteritis aka the stomach flu: You know this one, Gastroenteritis causes vomiting, diarrhea, stomach aches, headache, fever, and nausea.

Hepatitis: Yep, you can get Hep A from dirty water. If you’re not familiar, Hep A is highly contagious liver infection. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, nausea, jaundice, and loss of appetite.

Salmonellosis: This one you probably associate with undercooked chicken or raw eggs, but you can contract it from runoff water as well. Salmonella causes severe diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps that generally last about 4 to 7 days. Diahrrea can be so severe that patients need to be hospitalized.

Shigellosis: This is a disease that can be spread only through poop: it can be contracted only by coming into contact with the stools of an infected person. If you happen to inhale some of those stools while going over the falls, you’ll likely experience diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, and tenesmus.

E. coli infection: E. coli is a normal bacteria that lives in the digestive tracts of people and animals, but particular types of it can cause intestinal infections. Symptoms can range from mild effects of diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever to much more extreme issues like bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the worst cases kidney failure.

Enterocci: Another fecal infection transported by runoff. This one can cause urinary tract infections and meningitis.

Skin infections: The most serious of which is MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) a type of staph infection of the skin that is resistant to most antibiotics used for staph treatment. It usually begins as a painful red bump that resemble spider bites. The area might be warm to touch, full of pus or drainage, and accompanied by a fever. In the most serious cases, MRSA can travel deep into the body and cause life-threatening infections in the joints, bones, blood stream, heart, and lungs.

Conjunctivitis: Also known as pink eye, that gross thing you got in the 3rd grade and your eye crusted over. The infection usually clears itself up in 7 to 10 days without treatment, but it’s very contagious and uncomfortable. Symptoms typically include redness of the eye, swelling of the eyelid and eye area, lots of tearing, itching or burning sensations of the eye, and thick, white drainage from the eye.


Clearly, you’d like to avoid all of the above. But what are the best ways to do so? Here are several options to help you avoid a painful stint on the toilet…


#1: Don’t Surf in Dirty Water

Just don’t do it. Stay out of the water for the full 72 hours. Discipline yourself, find a different hobby, or hop on a plane and surf somewhere else. Keep your body removed from the boiling cauldron of bacteria that is your local spot after a rain. This is by far the most effective option, and you DEFINITELY need to follow it if you have any open wounds. Open cuts and sores are an invitation for a gruesome infection.


#2: Screen Where You Surf

Ok, you can’t handle skipping a session without a mental breakdown. While that’s something you probably need to address, in terms of avoiding illness, be very selective about where you surf after a storm. Avoid areas with storm drains, river mouths, and other sources of runoff. Although it’s slightly out of date, this map from the NRDC can be helpful in evaluating which beaches to avoid. Also, while in the water, avoid swallowing water at all costs. This is the main way you can contract intestinal infections, and if you can last a whole session without a gulp of seawater, you’ll at least stand a chance at staying healthy.


#3: After the Fact

This is not recommended, but in worst case scenarios (you know that you already surfed filthy water) try a couple of these tactics.

-Lean you head forward, and blow as much water out of your sinuses as possible. Maybe even try a neti pot sinus rinse to get all the polluted water out of there.

-Scrub and clean out any cuts or abrasions you had previously or incurred while surfing immediately after exiting the water. The quicker you can eliminate infection causing pathogens from your wounds, the better off you’ll be.

-Shower immediately after exiting the water. Clean your body with antibacterial soap. Wash off the bad stuff.

-Brush your teeth and rinse with antibacterial mouthwash before eating or drinking anything. This can kill pathogens in your mouth before you ingest them.

  • caleb

    This article leaves out the most important part which is to rinse your ears, eyes and nose in the shower. Using warm, not hot water, let the water stream into your ear canal. Close one nostril and stream the water into your nose (like the neti pot). Start with a small amount at first so you don’t choke on it. Finally pull your lower eyelids down slightly and let the water splash onto your eyes.
    If you have surfers ear like me you might still get an occasional ear infection but I surf nasty water all the time and I dont get sick.

  • Heal the Bay

    Great piece, Taylor! Couple addenda, if you don’t mind: Ocean users should adhere to the 100-yard rule: Steer plenty clear of flowing stormdrains–at least 100 yards on either side. Also, our Beach Report Card has weekly health grades for over 500 beaches across the entire West Coast:

  • tum kritcher

    wash your ears with alcohol, eye drops, or a long hot shower, listerine, and iodine on any cuts.
    but better than all that..wait 2-4 days after a heavy storm before getting into the water..hepatitis is not worth it..nor an eye/ear infection. think long term not short term.

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