With sunny days on the way and the promise of spectacular beach getaways on the horizon, the last thing you need to worry about is how the poor water quality at your favorite beach may harm your family. Luckily, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, an annual investigative report, can help you make smarter choices about where to travel, this summer and beyond. The annual report, now in its 22nd year, was created by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and shows that not all is safe and sound on some of America’s most popular beaches. For example, NRDC’s analysis of water quality at coastal U.S. beaches found that the number of beach closing and safety advisory days reached the third-highest level ever in 2011, a total of 23,481 days. Worse than the beach closures is why those beaches closed down. More than two-thirds of beach closings and advisories were issued because bacteria levels in the beachwater exceeded public health standards, a scary problem that indicates the presence of human or animal waste in the water (ugh).

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Image by Flickr User Stevie Lee

What’s Wrong with Swimming in Raw Sewage?

Beyond the obvious grossness involved, you can actually get really sick from swimming in water that’s been infested with raw sewage. The NRDC report points out that many illnesses are associated with polluted beachwater including, “Stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis, and hepatitis.” Keep in mind that kids are at a higher risk of contracting a real whopper of an illness when exposed, because adventuresome kids, unlike more refined adults, tend to go nuts in the water. Kids splash more, submerge their little heads and swallow water while swimming. Overall the illness figures are staggering. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 3.5 million people become ill from contact with raw sewage each year. However, real figures may be much higher because people who get sick due to contact with raw sewage in water sources don’t always know it and thus fail to report it to local health officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also found that infections associated with recreational water use have grown over the past several decades. The NRDC report notes, for example, that fecal contamination at Los Angeles and Orange County beaches cause between 627,800 and 1,479,200 gastrointestinal illnesses annually. So nope, even if the thought didn’t totally gross you out already, you still really wouldn’t want to jump into an ocean of sewage.

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Image by hortongrou via sxc.

How Bad are America’s Beaches?

According to the NRDC report, 2011 water quality results confirm that our nation’s beaches continue to experience significant water pollution each year, putting beachcombers and local economies at risk. Most beach closings in 2011 were officially issued because beachwater monitoring had detected unsafe levels of bacteria due to four main causes; stormwater runoff; sewage overflows; inadequately treated sewage; and agricultural runoff. Other sources to blame include beachgoers themselves, wildlife, septic systems, and boating waste. Worse, keep in mind that water quality extends beyond the sea. Lakes and other popular bodies of water in the USA are also affected, with Louisiana, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Connecticut, and Wisconsin showcasing the highest percentage of bodies of water with problem samples that exceeded the EPA’s recommended single-sample maximum for designated beach areas. The good news (yup, there is some good news) is that the NRDC report shows that while water quality may be horrid, most beachwater quality monitoring programs in very problematic areas are doing their job. Meaning, where water quality is poorest, state programs do their job well, find the problem, and “Always or almost always close a beach or issue an advisory.

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Image by Flickr User Gustavo Devito

What Can You Do?

If we want our children and future generations to be able to enjoy our beaches, then we have to start working on keeping our beaches clean. Still, water quality issues go far beyond one solution. NRDC suggests, among other tactics, that green infrastructure technologies be used to help retain and filter rainwater where it falls, letting it soak back into the ground rather than causing runoff-related pollution and sewage overflows. Green infrastructures you can help implement at home or in your city, include practices like strategically placed rain gardens, tree boxes along city sidewalks, green roofs, rain barrels and permeable pavement. NRDC also recommends that the EPA revise their regulations for sources of runoff pollution and their level of acceptable water quality risk so that it is protective of public health. You can help by asking the EPA to issue health-based water quality criteria. To protect your family’s health now, be sure to pay attention to beach and other water area closures and advisories. Part of the NRDC report is dedicated to beach ratings, so you can also protect your family by using these ratings to choose a safer beach, if you happen to be planning a vacation. NRDC rated 200 popular USA beaches, awarding them stars for exceptionally low violation rates and strong testing and safety practices. In 2011, twelve beaches received an excellent 5-star rating, including:

  • Gulf Shores Public Beach and Gulf State Park Pavilion in Alabama
  • Bolsa Chica Beach, Huntington State Beach and Newport Beach in California
  • Dewey Beach in Delaware; Ocean City at Beach 6 in Maryland
  • Park Point Franklin Park and Park Point Lafayette Community Club Beach in Minnesota
  • Hampton Beach State Park and Wallis Sands Beach in New Hampshire
  • South Padre Island in Texas

If you’re not near any of the beaches above, NRDC has included a handy beach zip code finder in their report so you can learn more about local beaches.

+ NRDC Tips for Finding a Safe, Clean Beach

+ Ratings of Popular Beaches

+ Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches

Lead image by Carin via sxc.