23 Aug 2014
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Dirty Beach Water? Could Irresponsible Dog Owners Be Part Of The Problem?

Dog waste is not only a nuisance, there are also indications that it could also contribute to environmental problems that lead to beach closures.

Dirty Beach Water? Could Irresponsible Dog Owners Be Part Of The Problem?

In the wake of a leading environmental group’s gloomy report on polluted beaches, let us consider pleasing and disgusting topics: our beloved pet dogs, and their waste.

This week, the Natural Resources Defense Council again released scary statistics on disease-carrying bacteria regularly washing into swimming areas. The NRDC’s 290-page report, found here, tallies bacteria tests from last year on 3,000 beaches nationwide and 66 beaches in Connecticut.

Connecticut was the 24th most polluted state, according to this report. Swimming water tests failed 11 percent of the time, statewide. Shockingly, beaches in areas one might think cleaner, like tiny New London or pretty Clinton, made it to the list of most-failed bacteria tests.

Failure rate high in nearby Clinton

More than half of the tests at Kiddie’s Beach in New London (54 percent) showed unsafe bacteria counts. Greens Harbor Beach in New London failed 45 percent of its tests. Clinton’s Town Beach was also among the worst in the state, with 24 percent failure rate in the water tests.

It is true that weekly tests can be a misleading marker of an entire season. If many of the testing days happened to fall on rainy ones, when bacteria counts are always higher from runoff, that would be true.

But the tests have been going on for years, and they offer one of the only methods of evaluating the link between mindless daily activities like leaving the dog feces on the sidewalk and our health.

It sounds too dramatic, perhaps, to blame dogs. Environmental writers often use experts and statistics to point some of the fingers at local geese populations (causing trouble in some places) or sewage treatment plant overflows during storms. These are real problems that towns and cities have devoted time and money to solve. But, nationwide, sewage treatment plants caused just 8 percent of the beach closings or advisories last year, the NRDC reports.

Dog feces contributing to problem

Far more of the beach problems were due to other causes unknown or unstudied.

The NRDC report says: 52 percent of the closings were because of unknown pollution sources. And 36 percent were from polluted runoff, the stuff that washes over pavement, picking up bacteria. Then, 88 percent of the beach closings or advisories in the United States last year were due to sources the experts can’t identify.

Pet waste is among them. The report does specifically say that dog feces contribute to the pollution. But how, no one knows.

Consider the possibility that in towns, village, and cities, dog waste might contribute to beach pollution in a major way. Sometimes officials blame geese for pumping up the bacteria in beach areas. They don’t consider dogs.

We like dogs and they outnumber wildlife dramatically.

In Madison there are more than 4,000 dogs

The American Veterinary Medical Association provides a formula to figure out how many dogs might live in a town or county. Plug in the population of an area and it tells you how many dogs live there, based on national pet ownership statistics. Go here to try the pet ownership calculator.

In Madison: almost 19,000 people, 4,803 dogs. In New London County live about 260,000 people and, by the AVMA’s calculation, about 66,000 dogs. In the town of Stonington, 18,000 people own 4,550 dogs, the formula calculates.  In Ledyard, 15,000 people, 3,792 dogs. Etc.

While many towns have passed ordinances to pick up pet waste, not all have, and—perhaps worse—many officials I called weren’t aware whether they had ordinances or not, or if they did, where to find them. Waterford, New London, Stonington, and Madison al have ordinances on the books.

Rules hard to enforce

Even with ordinances, rules to pick up dog waste are not easy to enforce. Any dog owner has seen the evidence.            

What should we do? Perhaps the only hope here is that we allow ourselves to be newly horrified by our furry friends and by people we know who aren’t horrified enough.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences journal cites a study from the Journal of Environmental Engineering that finds pet waste is indeed a probable source of urban bacterial pollution.

 “Using methods to test water for fecal streptococci, bacteria unique to animal feces, researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, found high numbers of the bacteria in runoff from lawns and roadways,” the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, reported.

Housing density and water contamination correlated

The study found a high correlation between density of housing and water contamination. The study’s co-author, Edward L. Thackston said, “One of the things associated with housing density is the number of pets per acre.”

There are too many dogs for natural decomposition to work, the experts are suggesting.The obvious solution is to keep pet waste off the streets, yards, and out of the woods.

But, how? The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection recommends not dumping dog waste in backyard compost piles because of the parasites, bacteria, pathogens, and viruses it carries. The composting process might not always kill these. Some companies come to people’s yards and dispose of dog waste for them (such as the Daily Scooper, serving Madison and Guilford and the Hamden area).

The most common solution, the DEP says, is to wrap dog (and cat) feces in plastic bags and put them in the trash. In Connecticut, this will be incinerated. The DEP’s advice can be found here.

(This, of course, raises the question: if we stop using plastic bags, as many policy makers have considered and some towns promote, what should pet owners use? But we’ll tackle that another time.)


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