EarthTalk: A friend of mine refuses to swim at
our beach near Los Angeles because the water is too polluted.
What is the status of beach pollution, and is it safe for
my kids and me to take a dip? -- Oscar Jeffries, Santa
Pollution levels are not the same at all beaches, so local
conditions dictate whether or not it is safe to swim in the
ocean near you. Local officials are required by federal law
to monitor coastal pollution levels and post warnings as needed.
But some local water quality officials are more diligent than
others, so if you have any reason to doubt the cleanliness
of the beach water, it is best to stay out.
Beach pollution originates with a variety of sources, including
human, animal, agricultural and industrial waste, as well
as leaked motor oil and gasoline, among other contaminants
flushed out to coastal regions. Swimming in contaminated beach
water can expose people to harmful chemicals bacteria and
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
the most common illness associated with exposure to contaminated
beach water is gastroenteritis, which rears its ugly head
in the form of nausea, vomiting, stomach ache, diarrhea, headache
and sometimes fever. Ear, eye, nose and throat infections
can also ensue from swimming in polluted water. In rare cases--though
not typically in the U.S. or Canada--swimmers are exposed
to more serious diseases such as dysentery, hepatitis, cholera
and typhoid fever.
Back in 2000, Congress called on the EPA to update its beach
water health standards by 2005 to reflect increased pollution
over the past 20 years--when the agency last issued standards.
They missed the deadline, so in 2006 the Natural Resources
Defense Council (NRDC) filed suit against the EPA for failing
to honor its Congressional mandate. On the same day it filed
suit, NRDC issued a report showing that beach closings due
to hazardous bacterial contamination had jumped 50 percent
in Los Angeles County last year alone. Further, across the
U.S. beaches were closed or posted with health advisories
20,000 times in 2005.
According to NRDC, New Hampshire and Delaware had the cleanest
ocean beaches, with contamination exceeding federal safety
levels in only one percent of the samples taken. But beaches
in California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts,
Michigan, Rhode Island and South Carolina were in violation
of existing contamination standards at least half the time
water samples were taken in 2005.
NRDC acknowledges that better local monitoring may explain
the increased number of closings in 2005, but warns that many
beaches deemed safe according to 20-year-old standards may
not actually be so. For its part, the EPA reports it will
now not be able to issue updated standards until 2011.
North of the border, Canadians can worry less about contaminated
ocean beaches due to less developed coastlines. But the Great
Lakes that Canada shares with the U.S. are notoriously polluted
and the Great Lakes Commission has been working since 2000
to reduce the amount of raw sewage and industrial pollution
jeopardizing water quality there. As with swimming at ocean
beaches, freshwater swimmers should always check with local
water authorities before diving in.
CONTACTS: EPA Beach Pollution Info, www.epa.gov/beaches/learn/pollution.html;
NRDC Beach Pollution FAQ, www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/qttw.asp;
Great Lakes Commission, www.glc.org.
How can I reduce the amount of paper bills that arrive
at my home?
-- Bill C., via e-mail
Fortunately for the world’s dwindling forests, a growing
number of financial institutions, utilities and universities
are implementing paperless billing options that not only save
paper, but time and money, too.
Students at hundreds of educational institutions across North
America are already receiving and paying their tuition bills
online, avoiding the hassle of receiving paper bills and paying
by mail, while also saving their schools hundreds of thousands
of dollars a year in paper, postage and administrative costs.
Forward-thinking companies already offering their customers
similar options include Bank of America, BellSouth, Citibank,
Qwest, South Carolina Electric & Gas, Southern California
Edison, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Wells Fargo and Washington
Mutual, among many others.
BellSouth offers “e-bills” that you can print
out any time but don't have to. With the click of a mouse
you can view your bill, access details and billing history,
and make secure payments. You can pre-schedule so that each
monthly bill gets paid on time, or set it up so that funds
are remitted only when you authorize it. Southern California
Edison’s Online Billing and Payment service involves
the same routine, with no paper exchange needed between company
and consumer, and no need to print out your bills. Both companies
send e-mail notices to let you know each time a new bill has
At least two companies, PayTrust and XPress Bill Pay, will
coordinate the receipt of all of your bills and present them
to you online so you can pay any and all routinely from your
desktop, even with different bank accounts, and using credit
or debit cards or electronic funds transfer. The company lauds
this service as one step removed (and paper saved) from “bill
pay” services that still require you to “watch
your mailbox, collect your bills on the kitchen table and
remember to make a payment.”
“Electronic bill presentment and payment via the Internet
is one of the fastest-growing areas in business,” says
Nick Rini, a columnist for Telephony, a trade magazine for
communications service providers. “With more than 63
billion checks written annually where 80 percent is some sort
of bill payment--either business-to-business or consumer-to
business--substantial cash-management benefits and customer-service
opportunities exist for those who use interactive billing
and payment,” he adds.
One advantage of paperless billing, says Rini, is that companies
can get paid faster than when they must print, fold, stuff,
meter, sort and mail paper bills. Rini estimates that, in
the U.S. alone, companies could save $200 million collectively
each day if they switched to paperless billing.
“The obvious cost savings come from decreasing, and
eventually eliminating, printing and mailing expenses,”
says Rini, adding that companies usually pay between 75 cents
and $2.00 for each document generated and mailed. Meanwhile,
the same companies end up paying another $1.25 for each paper
check payment they must process, most if not all of which
could be eliminated through online bill payment.
CONTACTS: PayTrust, www.paytrust.com;
XPress Bill Pay, www.xpressbillpay.com.