Beach safety in New York these days is more than watching children in the surf. It means watching where they step. The appearance of garbage last week that included hypodermic needles and some medical vials, led to the closing of several public beaches along Long Island over the past several days. There has been confusion over whether this latest incident was the result of illegally dumped hospital waste or simply discarded needles and vials from drug users.
But there have been other disturbing signs in the region - such as massive fish kills in the waters off New York and New Jersey - that show carelessness about protecting the ocean environment is a very present problem. Low oxygen levels in Long Island Sound and bouts of so-called ``brown tide,'' also known as algal blooms, last summer have led environmentalists and some politicians to call for more action in protecting the sea.
This past weekend, Gov. Mario Cuomo responded to the reports of medical debris by saying he would not tolerate the degradation of the state's beaches by criminal or careless acts.
He specifically asked for an increase in the penalties for parties caught dumping such wastes, a tightening of the tracking of these wastes, and a $2 million emergency appropriation for patrolling and investigating illegal dumping.
State legislation passed last year has already called for tougher rules and regulations regarding so-called infectious medical waste, and it is expected to be in place by the end of the year, says William Fagel, a spokesman for the State Health Department. It covers such specifics as how to classify wastes and how to mark and dispose of them.
But policing the dumping of such wastes is very difficult, say Mr. Fagel and other experts. While most waste is safely and legally disposed of, there has long been a problem of illegal dumping of hazardous wastes, and questions about the role of organized crime in the waste disposal industry.
The issue of medical wastes made headlines last year when a large slick of such garbage washed ashore in New Jersey. Now, and then, the immediate concern is whether such waste contained products infected with the AIDS virus, and thus was a health risk for the public. Tests were being conducted on some of the garbage this week to see if it constituted a health hazard.
Many officials have said the actual health risk is low. One public official suggested in the New York Times that finding needles on the beach is ``part of the ecology'' of New York now. But other officials, including Ronald Foley, Long Island regional director of the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation, say ``we don't regard [the debris] part of the landscape. It's not a customary experience.''
Mr. Foley points out that fees for disposal have become so high that disposers are looking for less expensive ways to get rid of waste. The only way to discourage them is to make illegal waste disposal cost more than the legal ways, he says.
Hospitals throughout the country have been faced with both increasing amounts of waste and disposal costs. Dr. Dieter Gr"oshel, director of the microbiology department at the University of Virginia, estimates that there are 10 to 12 pounds of garbage per patient per day, although not all of that is considered hazardous.
Private contractors are hired because many hospitals cannot keep up with disposal costs or meet strict environmental standards in their incineration systems.