First impressions may be deceptive, but the initial reaction in this state to a new United Nations report on ocean pollution sounded echoes of Pollyanna. ``It's not our problem,' was the theme.``It,' in the view of a distinguished international panel of scientists, is an alarmingly high incidence of disease-carrying human waste along the margins of the world's oceans. While their report was reassuring with regard to radioactive and petroleum contamination, its findings on the subject of sewage were alarming.
Waste contamination presents grave threats to human health, both through the seafoods we eat and through direct contact in swimming and water sports. Indirectly, the risk is a dangerous decline in the reproduction of aquatic life - an important, even crucial, food source throughout the world.
The initial reaction to all this by at least one North Carolina expert was a quick assurance that waste pollution is not a problem along North Carolina's long coastline. It's true that no North Carolina municipalities currently deposit sewage directly into the ocean, as happens farther north along the Atlantic Seaboard. But even that indignity is not out of the question. Carteret County has talked about doing it.
What's more, the pressure for denser and denser coastal development means coastal sewage disposal will be an ever-larger problem in this state, and the risk of short-sighted solutions will continue to rise.
Even without direct sewage disposal, North Carolina's beaches are not immune to pollution from more distant sources. We have had our introduction to medical wastes and spilled petroleum as well.
Of even more pressing importance in this state is the assault on coastal marshlands and estuaries by land-based pollution. In the Pamlico River particularly, we have firsthand experience with the strangling effects of upstream farm runoff, ineffectively treated domestic waste and industrial pollution.
It takes no detective to find condemned shellfish beds along the North Carolina shore. You can do it by throwing a dart at a map. This state's commercial and recreational seafood harvest clearly reflects the long-term damage of pollution.
According to the U.N. study, the next step may well be seaborne diseases. Researchers in both the Mediterranean region and the United States documented links between ocean swimming and gastric disorders. They found evidence of the polio virus being communicated in this manner, along with hepatitis, cholera and perhaps even AIDS.
``The open sea remains relatively clean,' the scientists concluded, but it is along the shore that man and sea most often meet. And there, the human environment is rapidly deteriorating. The U.N. scientists called for immediate international action. In North Carolina, we must begin by acknowledging that we are part of the oceanic world and therefore part of the problem.