Bacteria Beach: Do Surfers Hold the Key to Bacteria Resistance?

I recently caught up with UCLA professor Dr. Jennifer Jay about the highly anticipated results of the Surfer Resistance Project. Dr. Jay has spent the last 16 years teaching at UCLA in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. She specializes in the fate and transport of chemical and microbial contaminants in the environment, and, through her research, addresses a wide range of topics like coastal water quality and environmental proliferation of antibiotic resistance.

Last year, UCLA Ph.D. candidate Megan Rough and Dr. Jay set out to determine if surfers are more likely to be colonized with antibiotic-resistant bacteria than the general population. Dr. Jay was excited by the results of their study, sharing, “We first did nasal swabs of surfers before the rainy season. Before the storms, the surfers had an MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) colonization level similar to the general population. But what was really interesting was what we learned once we tracked down those same surfers months later. When we repeated the swab after the rainy season and subsequent storm runoff, we found that the number of surfers who were colonized with MRSA had grown exponentially.”

The human microbiome and the impact of the environment on our microbes is a rapidly growing field, setting the stage for many new and interesting studies. There have been a few recent projects examining the microbiomes of surfers, including professional surfer and journalist Cliff Kapono’s Surfer Biome project, a collaboration with the American Gut project out of UCSD. Kapono traveled the world for nine months visiting Ireland, Spain, Morocco, California, Hawaii, Chile, and Indonesia, surfing and collecting microbial swabs and fecal samples from fellow surfers (which he admits was an awkward ask). His project looks at the chemicals and bacteria in our oceans and how they influence the health of surfers and the world at large. He hopes the study will spark conversations about how to better preserve our planet’s oceans.

Another recent study is the aptly named Beach Bums project out of the UK which recruited 300 surfers and non-surfers, using rectal swabs to determine the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The results of the study determined that surfers were colonized with antibiotic-resistant E. Coli at a rate three times greater than non-surfers.

Regularly fully submerged in water, and swallowing 10 times more ocean water than swimmers, surfers are the human sentinels of the ocean. It stands to reason that they would pick up microbes that inhabit the water.

But some of these microbes are not natural to the ocean/environment, like MRSA, which is a man-made problem resulting from the overuse of antibiotics (which used to be mostly contained to healthcare settings). MRSA most often causes skin infections, but in some cases it can cause pneumonia and other infections and can even lead to sepsis and death.

And it’s not just human surfers that are the only ones picking up antibiotic-resistant bacteria from our oceans. Marine life is also being colonized with the strong bacteria. A preliminary survey from a study taking place in Washington’s Puget Sound shows that a large portion of the Sound’s harbor seals have been contaminated. Beaches also carry high levels of microbes, with enough bacteria on a grain of sand to cause gastrointestinal illnesses. The usual suspects for antibiotic-resistant bacteria finding its way to our beaches is human contamination, whether it’s through direct human contact, urban storm runoff, or from a water treatment facility.

Regardless, the uptick in antibiotic-resistant bacteria is an urgent threat, killing at least 700,000 people per year and estimated to kill 10 million people per year by 2050 (more people than are killed by cancer).

Dr. Jay is on the hunt for answers to where these bacteria are coming from and recently received funding from The National Resources Defense Council to begin sequencing the MRSA bacteria so that they can, hopefully, trace it to its origin.

To stay bacteria-free in the meantime avoid swimming after storms, and before any beach day be sure to check the water quality on sites like Heal the Bay’s beachreportcard.org.

Angela Kelly is the founder of GutsyMother, a health and wellness informational site and blog exploring the microbiome as it relates to personal health, fitness, and family health. She is also a freelance writer, mama to three small humans, a C. diff survivor, and gut health enthusiast. You can find her drinking an obscene amount of green tea, swearing at the laundry, running, writing, or enjoying the beach with her tribe. Follow her on Instagram at @GutsyMother.

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