Shark Week Series: Risk and Fear

Robin Just

This is the fifth and last post in our Shark Week Series. Happy Shark Week, everyone!

Many rational people are very afraid of sharks. We can tell ourselves that the odds of attack are extremely low, especially in New England, but the primal image of the gaping maw and jagged teeth is hard to drive away with logic. As David Ropeik points out in his thought-provoking book, How Risky Is It, Really?, a risk feels bigger if you think it can happen to you, regardless of the odds. Sharks attacks are easy to imagine. However, if you look at the numbers, you should be way more worried about the drive to the beach, or lightning. The odds of death by shark each year in the U.S. are 1 in 3,748,067. You are way more likely to die from a dog attack. Here are some other things that are deadlier than a shark:

  • Car accident – you have a 1 in 84 chance of dying in a car crash each year
  • Death by sun/heat exposure – 1 in 13,729 per year
  • Death by fireworks – 1 in 340,733 per year

I do worry about sharks. Almost anyone who spends time in the ocean thinks about them. But I worry a lot more about getting sick from polluted water.

Potentially harmful bacterial pollution enters our coastal environment in partially or untreated wastewater and stormwater, in septic and cesspool waste, and from animal waste on or near beaches. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, illnesses caused by recreational use of contaminated water are on the increase. For the fifth year in a row, beach closure or advisory days in 2010 topped 24,000 nationally, the majority which are due to bacterial contamination. Swimming in pathogen-contaminated water can result in respiratory infections, pink eye, stomach flu and many other health problems.

Many popular beaches have water-testing programs to help keep swimmers safe, but the testing is generally not daily, and the results are not “real time.” It’s a good idea to avoid the water during or after a storm, when bacteria levels are likely to be higher, since some of our stormwater is untreated. Worse still, many towns and cities in New England have antiquated Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) systems that are designed to release untreated sewage and stormwater into our rivers and oceans during storms. Some beaches close down as a result of storms, without even being tested, if it is known that CSOs will be flowing into the water. Fortunately, some CSOs are being upgraded and eliminated. But for now, there is still a very real risk of illness from swimming in contaminated water.

There is risk in everything we do. I’m willing to risk an encounter with one of the “Men in Gray Suits” if it means I get to keep surfing. But I’m going to be very careful about swimming in polluted water.

My point is not that we should be too afraid to enjoy our amazing beaches and ocean life. But, that we should work to protect them. Join CLF in advocating for our National Ocean Policy, in protecting the Clean Water Act, and in ensuring we leave a legacy of protecting these special places.

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