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Press Release

May 2006
Press contact: Elliott Negin, 202/289-2405
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Could I get sick from swimming in contaminated beachwater?

Yes. Exposure to bacteria, viruses, and parasites in contaminated beachwater can cause a wide range of diseases, including ear, nose and eye infections; gastroenteritis; hepatitis; encephalitis, skin rashes; and respiratory illnesses. Most waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States occur during the summer, when Americans are most likely to be exposed to contaminated beachwater. Experts estimate that as many as 7 million Americans get sick every year from drinking or swimming in water contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites.

Who is most at risk?

Small children, elderly people, pregnant women, and cancer patients and others with weakened immune systems are most likely to get sick from swimming in contaminated beachwater. They also are the most likely to be hospitalized or die from waterborne illnesses. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children under the age of 9 had more reports of diarrhea and vomiting from exposure to waterborne parasites than any other age group.

How many Americans get sick from swimming in contaminated beachwater?

We do not have good data on recreational waterborne disease outbreaks because most people treat the symptoms of their illness (for example, fever, headache, diarrhea and vomiting) without ever finding out what caused them. Experts estimate that some 7 million Americans are sickened by contaminated water -- including recreational and drinking water -- every year.

How can I protect myself from getting sick?

Beachgoers can lessen their chances of getting sick by: swimming only at beaches where authorities test the water at least weekly and close the beach or issue an advisory when it is polluted; staying out of the water when there are closings or advisories; avoiding swimming at beaches with nearby discharge pipes or at urban beaches after a heavy rainfall; staying out of murky or foul-smelling water; staying out of the water when they have an open wound or infection; and swimming without putting their heads under water.

What should I do if I get sick?

If you believe that you have been exposed to contaminated water, rinse off well with soap and water. Especially clean any skin abrasions. Use a mouthwash or clean water to gargle and spit out. Dry out your ears. Take a shower and wash swimsuits and towels (and other clothing that might have gotten wet) as soon as possible.

If you start to feel sick, go to a doctor or your healthcare provider. Tell your doctor that you think were exposed to contaminated water. Contact your county health department to report your illness.

Watch children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems for signs of illness, particularly if they accidentally swallowed water.

Aren't beaches tested to make sure that they are safe?

State and local health and environmental officials are responsible for monitoring water quality at our nation's beaches. When they find contaminated water, they may post warnings or close the beach.

Coastal beach monitoring has significantly improved in recent years due to passage of the Beaches Environmental Assessment, Cleanup and Health Act of 2000 (BEACH Act), which provides assistance to state and local governments to develop monitoring programs, but many beaches are still not monitored regularly, in part because Congress has never fully funded the BEACH Act. Seventy-three percent of beaches that provided data to the Environmental Protection Agency and NRDC were regularly monitored in 2004, according to NRDC's annual beach report, "Testing the Waters."

Why isn't beachwater testing sufficient?

Even beachwater that is regularly monitored for pollution is not necessarily safe. The tests take 24 to 48 hours to produce results, and even then, many beaches re-test rather than close or issue an advisory. The tests also are not designed to protect the public against the full range of waterborne illnesses or to protect sensitive populations. The current EPA standards are based on the assumption that 19 out of 1,000 people swimming in ocean water just meeting this standard will become ill and that 8 out of 1,000 people who swim in the Great Lakes will become ill.

Where does the pollution come from?

The largest known sources of beachwater pollution are contaminated stormwater and untreated or partially treated sewage. The human and animal wastes carried to the beaches by stormwater, sewer overflows, septic systems and boating wastes are filled with viruses, bacteria and parasites that make people sick.

While in many cases, the sources of beachwater pollution have not been identified, sources of beachwater contamination include the following:

  • Polluted stormwater runoff from highways, buildings, streets and parking lots
  • Sewer line breaks, sewage spills and overflows
  • Sewage treatment plants and sanitary sewers
  • Waste from pets, livestock and wildlife
  • Poorly maintained septic tank systems
  • Oil spills
  • Boats or marinas that release sewage into the water

How can beachwater pollution be reduced?

The most effective way to reduce beachwater pollution is through prevention. Federal, state and local authorities should find the source of the contamination closing the beach and clean it up. Sewage needs to be fully treated before it is discharged to remove all of the pathogens that make people sick. Stormwater needs to be retained and filtered through soil and vegetation to remove contaminants. And then there's the issue of funding. Congress needs to provide more money to help communities implement beachwater cleanup programs.

What should the EPA do to protect the public from beachwater pollution?

The EPA should promptly set beachwater standards that will fully protect the 180 million people who go to the beach every year. Americans should be able to swim at the beach without worrying about getting sick. The EPA also needs to tighten and enforce controls on all sources of beachwater pollution. Controls on untreated and inadequately treated sewage, urban stormwater, and other sources of polluted runoff are particularly critical.

What should Congress and state and local officials do?

Congress should reauthorize and fully fund implementation of the federal BEACH Act, including providing money to state and local government to track and reduce the sources of beachwater pollution. State and local governments should make preventing beachwater pollution a top priority. They should adopt monitoring and closure programs that adequately protect the public, and they should identify and clean up the sources of beachwater pollution.

How can the public help?

Citizens should support increased federal, state and local funding for urban stormwater programs and for repairing, rehabilitating and upgrading aging sewer systems. Citizens also should support funding for maintaining and expanding natural areas (wetlands, shoreline buffers and coastal vegetation) that trap and filter pollution before it reaches the beach.

Individuals also can help clean up beach pollution. Simple measures, such as conserving water, redirecting runoff into yards instead of the streets, using natural fertilizer, maintaining septic systems, avoiding pesticides, and properly disposing of animal waste, litter, toxic household chemicals and used motor oil can reduce the amount of pollution in coastal waters.

When at the beach, put tight-fitting rubber or plastic pants on all infants, clean up after your pets, do not feed waterfowl, carry out all trash or dispose of it securely in trash cans, and don't swim or let your children swim if they are sick.

How do I know when there's a risk of going into the water?

Until better standards are in place, the best way to protect yourself is to make sure the beachwater is being tested, because it may contain disease-causing microorganisms that you cannot see. Your local public health or environmental office can tell you if and when the water at your beach is monitored, who does it, and where the results are posted. On-line resources include EPA's "Beach Watch" website at www.epa.gov/OST/beaches, http://www.earth911.org/usa/WaterQuality/index.asp, and www.great-lakes.net/beachcast/mm.html. If up-to-date information for your beach is not available, contact your city, county or other local health officials listed in your local telephone book. Look for a posted advisory sign before entering the water.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
May 24, 2006, Beachgoers Face Waterborne Disease Risk as EPA Lets Water Standards Lag

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