Is the sand and water at NJ beaches safe to touch?
Six drownings in a week's time before the summer even officially starts have put an early-season damper on fun and relaxation at the Jersey Shore.
But one thing locals and bennies (shoobies?) alike do not have to fear is laying out on the beach, as Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton University, said the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection works daily to ensure the sand is safe.
"There's no real reason to be worried about sitting on the beach, and the water is probably pretty damn clean and safe too, everywhere along the Jersey coast," Farrell said.
NJDEP flies a crew down the coast in a helicopter every day to take samples and have them processed, mostly to detect fecal coliform, for which the critical number is 400 colonies per deciliter.
If a beach shows that level or higher two days in a row, more often than not caused by stormwater runoff containing the droppings of domestic animals, the DEP shuts that beach down until it is remediated.
"Heavy rains, sudden cloudbursts, will sometimes produce waterborne contamination. Very seldom is the beach a source of the problem," Farrell said. "Sand-size particles just don't collect bacteria, unless large quantities of sewage are dumped on the beach for some reason. Of course, if a seagull poops on the sand and you sit in it, well, that's your problem."
Needles and tampons
Farrell did share the anecdote that a study in Atlantic City once found that 13 tons of bird waste fall onto the beach in any given winter.
But in general, the scene at the shore is much different than in the 1980s, when the Garden State gained notoriety for floatable debris like hypodermic needles and tampon inserters washing up, Farrell said.
New Jersey, he said, is now one of the most prolific states in terms of its frequency of sand testing, and also has the knowledge that there are certain toxins that will cling to clay-sized particles, but not fine sand.
As far as the dangers of the water as the summer season begins, Farrell credits those tasked with keeping the shore safe for doing the best they can so far.
"Let's face it, there's what, 300,000 people in the water on a summer weekend? And the lifeguards do a wonderful job of rescuing most of them, but right now, the lifeguards have just come on duty since Memorial Day," he said.