Week of 8/20/2006

Dear 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 Monica, CA

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 viruses.

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.

Dear EarthTalk: 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 been tendered.

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.