Nobody's happy when syringes wash up on beaches, as they did recently on Long Beach Island. But the general public continues to misunderstand how and why this happens. And who can blame them? Their politicians don't understand it, either, to judge by the news releases quickly issued by three New Jersey elected officials immediately after the recent LBI washups.

And that's a shame. Because a little sense and a little perspective would make these washups less mysterious, less scary to the general public and build public support for addressing the actual cause of the problem.

U.S. Sen Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., jumped on the syringe story to tout a bill that will mandate the use of more rapid testing methods to detect water contamination.

But that's an entirely different issue from syringes washing up. You don't have to test for them - you can see them. (And after being exposed to the sun and saltwater, the actual risk of illness from these syringes is slim to none.)

Assemblymen Nelson T. Albano and Matthew Milam, both D-Cape May, were even further off the mark. They immediately announced a bill to toughen the penalties for illegal dumping. "We all grew tired of this a long time ago, and the time is past due for those who pollute our beaches to pay severely," Albano said.

But the recent washups had nothing to do with illegal dumping.

Yes, in the summer of 2008, a Pennsylvania dentist was charged with dumping hundreds of dental syringes in waters behind Avalon. But that case was a very rare exception.

The true story behind the recent washups is far more boring.

First of all, the syringes are usually the type used by diabetics. If you want to blame someone, blame the thousands of diabetics in the New York/northern New Jersey area who apparently flush their used syringes down toilets - and blame the 19-century sewer pipes that those syringes end up in.

Unlike modern sewer systems, the antiquated systems surrounding New York Harbor carry both stormwater and sewage to treatment plants. But in heavy rains, the treatment plants can't handle the volume, and the stuff in the pipes is shunted to combined sewage overflows, known as CSOs, which empty into the nearest body of water.

This creates trash slicks that wash out of the New York/New Jersey harbor area and - when weather and sea conditions are right - sometimes onto the beaches of New Jersey.

So fix the CSOs, right? Well, there are thousands of them, and it will cost billions and billions of dollars. And as long as politicians continue to confuse the public about the source of this kind of pollution, there will not be any kind of public mandate to fix them.

To be fair, Lautenberg has won funds to fix the CSOs in the past and has a measure in Congress that would provide another $1.8 billion to fix antiquated sewer systems. He mentioned that the end of his news release.

But why not educate the public and build a clamor for more money to eliminate CSOs and stop chirping about ocean-testing methods, which will never be particularly effective or valuable, and illegal dumping, which is actually quite rare?

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