The Syringe Tide was an environmental disaster during 1987-88 in New Jersey and New York where significant amounts of medical waste, including hypodermic syringes, and raw garbage washed up onto beaches on the Jersey Shore, in New York City, and on Long Island. This forced the closing of beaches on the Atlantic coast. Officials scrambled to identify the source of the material as some local economies struggled with diminished tourism.
Reports of medical waste and sewage spills drove away hundreds of thousands of vacationers, costing the $7.7-billion-a-year tourism industry on the Jersey Shore more than $1 billion in lost revenue that summer, tourism officials say. Later the losses were tallied between 15 and 40%.
Officials finally traced the source of the waste to the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. After much deliberation, New York City was required to pay $1 million USD for past pollution damages as well as pay for the clean up. No reparations were paid to the business owners on the Jersey Shore for revenues lost during the months of inactivity.
In response to syringe tides of 1987 and 1988, the participants in the New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program (HEP) implemented an extremely successful effort, known as the Short-term Floatables Action Plan. The plan has been implemented since 1989 and is supposed to curtail floatable debris wash-ups by intercepting debris slicks within the Harbor. With this plan, the extent of beach closures declined from over 70 miles (110 km) in 1988 to fewer than 4 miles (6.4 km) in 1989, and closures have remained at a low level in later years. The Short-term Floatables Action Plan has four key elements:
- Surveillance: Environmental organizations will conduct regular air and sea patrols of the Harbor to look for and report slicks of floatable debris.
- Regular Cleanups: The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) will use cleanup vessels to collect floatable debris in the Harbor and focuses its activities on conditions when slicks are most likely to occur.
- Non-routine Cleanups: USACE also attempts to capture additional debris slicks in the Harbor when they are detected and reported.
- Communications Network: United States Environmental Protection Agency coordinates a reporting network as well as cleanup activities among all the program participants.
It was a source of even greater turmoil due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
It is thought that the Syringe Tide was the specific incident cited in Billy Joel's 1989 hit single "We Didn't Start the Fire" by the line "Hypodermics on the shores". It was also the basis for Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Great Syringe Tide.
In The Simpsons episode The Old Man and the "C" Student, when punishing the students Principal Skinner sends Milhouse to the beach to "pick up all this medical waste that's washed up on the shore". Milhouse accidentally pricks himself on a syringe, and Skinner replies "Well, just keep working. You'll prick yourself with the antidote sooner or later".
In the episode "The Gang visits the Jersey Shore" From It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia Frank and Mac are on a beach covered in needles but blame it on New Jersey being the steroid capital of the world
- Beach Debris Still a Mystery; 77 Syringes Wash Up on S.I., July 12, 1988
- On the Jersey Shore, a Summer to Forget
- New York City to Pay Jersey Town $1 Million Over Shore Pollution (article summary), The New York Times, December 8, 1987
- New York-New jersey Harbor Estuary Plan, accessed February 19, 2007
- Floatable Debris, accessed February 19, 2007