After Gulf swimmers report illness, questions about opening a beach

Friday, July 2, 2010
By Paul Martin

Hundreds of beachgoers told health officials they felt unwell after swimming last week at oil spill-affected Pensacola Beach, Fla. Scientists cite many unknowns about the safety of swimming and working around the spill.

By Patrik Jonsson
CSMonitor.com
July 1, 2010

Atlanta
Santa Rosa Island officials flew the double-red flag – no swimming – over Pensacola Beach in Florida after a swath of thick oil washed ashore from the Gulf oil spill June 23.

Two days later, against the warnings of federal health officials and based on a visual survey of the beach, the local island authority director, Buck Lee, reopened the beaches for swimming, urging residents and tourists to come back to the beach. Officials left the ultimate decision on whether it was safe to swim to beachgoers.

This week, health officials in Escambia County, Fla., which includes Pensacola Beach, reported that about 400 people claimed they felt sick after visiting the beach and swimming in the Gulf.

The massive oil slick hovering off the shore of the US Gulf Coast threatens an entire tourist season that, in Florida alone, represents $65 million in revenue.

The situation in Pensacola Beach points to the growing difficulty of balancing the potential and largely unknown health effects of a spill making only localized landfall against the political and economic motivations of hard-hit beach communities facing a canceled summer.

“Perception is a bigger enemy than reality, because would-be visitors are not willing to really do the research or take even a small amount of risk,” says Adam Sacks, managing director of Tourism Economics, a consultancy firm in Wayne, Pa.

Testing by the University of West Florida in recent days has indicated small amounts of dissolved petrochemicals in the water near Pensacola Beach.

“There are molecules dissolved in the water and you can’t see them,” Dick Snyder, a biologist at the University of West Florida, told a local TV station. “We don’t know how much of that there is, but we suspect there’s a lot,”

Federal officials have urged caution about swimming in areas not only near the spill, but also where oil actually came ashore, and where tides buried some of the oil smudges. Federally managed National Seashore beaches on both sides of Pensacola Beach remained closed to swimming.

“My recommendation to the Santa Rosa Island Authority was to keep the beach closed until we can get a better handle on the actual material out here and to get more of it up,” EPA official Charlie Fitzsimmons told the Pensacola News-Journal June 25.

Local officials took a different tack.

Water quality tests that take three days to complete have proven useless because of the daily, even hourly, movement of the slick along the shore, says Mr. Lee, the island authority director. Instead, officials are relying on life guards scouring the 8-mile beach to look for oil – as well as the common sense of bathers.

“If you see oil in the water, don’t swim in it, and hopefully people will have enough sense not to do that,” says Lee. As to reports of people feeling sick, he says, “People have different reactions. You and I may go in the water, swim around, look for shells and come out of the water and your eyes may be burning and mine may be fine. It affects different people different ways.”

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