Procedures containing medical waste on beaches
Published 3:00 pm, Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Dear EarthTalk: I remember that medical waste, washing up in New Jersey, I believe, was a big issue in the late 1980s. Is it still today? -- Walter Maliszewski, Camden, N.J.
Medical waste washing up on New Jersey beaches was a big problem in the late 1980s, closing beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the New Jersey shore. Officials scrambled for months to figure out where the waste was coming from, and eventually zeroed in on New York City's Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Sub-optimal systems there were not successfully containing medical waste and other garbage on site, and New Jersey beaches -- and vacationers and business owners -- were paying the price. Although no one was injured or exposed to disease by the washed up waste, the public was especially alarmed given the HIV/AIDS crisis gripping the nation at that time. New York City was required to pay
$1 million for past pollution damages and had to shoulder the cost of cleanup at Jersey Shore beaches as well.
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The resulting loss of tourism cost business owners throughout the affected region as much as 40 percent of their revenue, with total losses estimated at well over $1 billion. Some New Jersey business owners remain upset that New York wasn't forced to pay them reparations for lost revenue as well.
In the wake of the scare, Congress enacted the Medical Waste Tracking Act in 1988, requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a program to better track medical waste from cradle-to-grave so that it didn't end up fouling beaches or any other environments. While the program was not renewed when it expired in 1991, it served as a model for how states and municipalities could better track potentially dangerous medical waste while also helping medical facilities institute systems and processes for making sure they knew where their waste was going and that it would be disposed of responsibly.
Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey have coordinated on setting up and maintaining their own systems to stem the so-called "syringe tides." The cornerstone is a multiagency program designed to intercept debris within New Jersey Harbor before it can get to tourist-crowded Jersey Shore beaches. Thanks to the plan -- which relies on surveillance by environmental groups as well as routine and special clean-up sweeps by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the implementation of a communications network to facilitate the reporting of incidents and quick responses -- beach closures declined from more than 70 miles in 1988 to less than 4 miles in 1989, with closures remaining at similarly low levels ever since.
Of course, medical waste is hardly the only problem facing America's beaches and coastal waters. According to the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, bacterial contamination from sewage treatment outflows, contaminated storm water and other sources caused more than 24,000 beach closures or advisories across the country in 2010 alone. NRDC reports on water quality at U.S. beaches every year in its series of "Testing the Waters" reports. Pressure from the group has helped spur the EPA to agree to overhaul Clean Water Act regulations pertaining to urban and suburban storm water runoff and update decades-old beach water quality standards by 2012. These improvements should help to keep beaches from the Jersey Shore to the Great Lakes to California, and points in between, clear of debris and safe for swimmers and sunbathers of every stripe.
Contacts: NRDC Testing the Waters, www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw;
Dear EarthTalk: What is "nonpoint source pollution?" How much of a problem is it and how can it be controlled? -- Devon Corey, New York, N.Y.
Unlike pollution that comes from specific industrial factories, sewage treatment plants and other easily discernible `points', nonpoint source pollution comes from many diffuse sources, but in the aggregate creates a formidable challenge for municipal, state and federal environmental and water control authorities.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nonpoint source pollution is "caused by rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground (where it...) picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters and ground waters." Some of the most common pollutants in nonpoint source pollution include excess fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides from agricultural lands and residential areas and oil, grease and toxic chemicals from urban runoff and energy production. Sediment from construction, mining and agricultural sites as well as salts, acids, bacteria and atmospheric deposition from myriad sources also play a role.
While its effects vary region to region, nonpoint source pollution is likely the largest threat to our water quality. The U.S. has made "tremendous advances in the past 25 years to clean up the aquatic environment by controlling pollution from industries and sewage treatment plants," according to the EPA. "Unfortunately, we did not do enough to control pollution from diffuse, or nonpoint, sources." The EPA also calls nonpoint source pollution the U.S.'s "largest source of water quality problems" and the main reason 40 percent of our rivers, lakes and estuaries "are not clean enough to meet basic uses such as fishing or swimming."
Because it comes from so many sources, regulating nonpoint source pollution is almost impossible, so it really comes down to individuals taking steps to minimize the pollution generated by their actions. The EPA reports that we can all do our part by: keeping litter, pet waste, leaves and debris out of street gutters and storm drains, which usually drain right into nearby water bodies; applying lawn and garden chemicals sparingly; disposing of used oil, antifreeze, paints and other household chemicals properly, that is, at your nearest hazardous household waste drop-off, not in storm drains; cleaning up spilled brake fluid, oil, grease and antifreeze, not hosing them into the street where they will eventually reach local waterways; and controlling soil erosion on your property by planting ground cover and stabilizing erosion-prone areas.
Beyond what we can do individually, local, regional and state governments can also help reduce nonpoint source pollution by enacting and enforcing building codes and other rules that can reduce outflows. The voluntary reduction in phosphates in dishwashing detergents in the U.S. last year, for example, was a big step in reducing the nutrient load into our streams and lakes. Some municipalities have gone so far as to mandate erosion and sediment control ordinances requiring the construction of natural buffers in building and landscaping projects to filter out pollutants before they reach local watersheds.
If your community doesn't have similar rules in place, encourage your local officials to enact them.
Contact: EPA's Nonpoint Source Pollution Page, www.epa.gov/owow_keep/NPS.
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