Group testing Waikiki sand for bacteria
An environmental group collected sand samples from Waikiki and Ala Moana beaches yesterday to test for bacteria, saying the public has a right to know whether 50 million gallons of raw sewage dumped into the Ala Wai Canal last month has contaminated the shoreline.
But the state Health Department said the testing will not provide worthwhile results as there are no national standards to follow for bacteria in sand. Also, officials said, the state does not test the sand for bacteria and so has no data for comparison.
The Healthy Hawaii Coalition took samples yesterday at Ala Moana Beach, the beach fronting Hilton Hawaiian Village and Waikiki Beach. They also gathered sand from Kailua Beach, where sewage spills occurred in late March and early April, and Makaha, where no spills happened.
It is hoped that the Makaha sample will provide researchers with clues on how much bacteria is found naturally in the sand, but health officials say it is misleading to compare bacteria samples from different beaches that likely have differing runoff patterns, usage and animal populations.
The coalition paid $90 per sample to conduct the tests through a private laboratory. The sand, gathered from the top layer of beach down as far as a foot, will be tested for enterococcus and clostridium perfringens, two of the indicator bacteria that the state tests water for after sewage spills.
The results will be available this afternoon or tomorrow morning.
"It's a community public health issue," said Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, vice president of the coalition and a former state legislator. She said she is not sure what an unhealthy bacterial count would be for the beaches.
"We're just planning to put the results out there. Experts on the issue can come up with an explanation of what the results mean," Tamayo said, adding that the coalition decided to test the sand after a 65-year-old Waikiki man contracted an infection on his foot last week.
The man had been walking along Waikiki Beach with a metal detector.
Dr. Chiyome Fukino, state health director, said the infection cannot be linked to the Ala Wai sewage spill because it is not clear whether the bacteria that spurred the man's infection is naturally present in the sand. She also said she has not heard about any increase in infections among people who went to the beach.
Doctors do not have to report all bacterial infections, but Fukino said she would likely be called about any "unusual clustering" of illnesses.
She also said the department is investigating a decision to delay the Kuhio Beach replenishment project because replacement sand in waters off Waikiki shows high bacteria levels.
Fukino said the sand was tested by a private contractor.
"What was their methodology? What are they using as standards? It begs a lot of questions," she said, adding that the bacterial levels could be normal for that stretch of sand.
"The issue is that all of the evidence that we have to date is that Waikiki beaches are as safe as they were before the sewage spill," Fukino said. "Bacteria levels in the water are at a normal level."
Meanwhile, the state Health Department is considering the feasibility of sand testing statewide in the future. Testing is at least a year off, Fukino said, as a study of normal bacteria levels at beaches would have to be conducted before regular monitoring is instituted.
Few studies have been conducted locally or nationally to test bacteria counts in sand after sewage spills or otherwise.
University of Hawaii professor Roger Fujioka of the Water Resources Research Center said bacteria live longer in the sand than in the water. But there is no research to pinpoint how long they can live.
"So far, there's no one that can give you the risk of bacteria in the sand," said Fujioka, who did a study of fecal indicator bacteria in sand at Hanauma Bay and Ala Moana Beach in 1995.
He found high levels of bacteria in sand at Hanauma Bay sometimes contributed to unsafe levels in the water. The fecal bacteria in the sand was attributed to runoff and pigeon and mongoose droppings.
In 2005 the Clean Beaches Council released a report on the possible public health risk of bacteria in sand and urged policymakers to come up with standards for monitoring.