A good trip to the beach promises sun, surf, and relaxation. Visitors should expect to leave sandy and smiling—but not feeling ill. Unfortunately, the water at your local beach might be contaminated by human or animal waste, putting your health at risk: bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens in that waste can make exposed swimmers sick.
What causes this contamination? Across the country, the largest known contributor to beach closings or health advisory days has historically been stormwater pollution. Untreated sewage spills and overflows are also frequently to blame.
Protecting swimmers from bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants in beach water requires leadership. Summer 2014 is filled with opportunities to improve water quality throughout the United States and to better protect people's health in the process. Everyone can now support a long-awaited rule to enhance protections for small streams and wetlands, which benefit beach water quality in two important ways, filtering out harmful contaminants and minimizing polluted runoff. Additionally, state and federal officials can start using the ample legal tools they have today to rein in stormwater pollution at the city and regional scale.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for ensuring that our recreational beach water is safe. Unfortunately, when the EPA adopted standards for allowable bacteria levels in late 2012, it missed a critical opportunity to protect the public from swimming in polluted water. However, the EPA also recently proposed guidance for grants given to states for water quality testing under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act to use a new and important tool—the health-protective Beach Action Value (BAV)—to make swimming advisory decisions that more fully protect public health. The BAV is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions." As such, local beach managers and state officials responsible for beach policies should rely on it to adequately safeguard public health.
Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with a weakened immune system are most likely to get sick from swimming in contaminated water. They are also most likely to become seriously ill from exposure to waterborne illnesses.
Exposure to bacteria, viruses, and parasites in contaminated water can cause symptoms and diseases ranging from ear, nose, and eye infections to diarrhea, vomiting, hepatitis, encephalitis, skin rashes, and respiratory illnesses. You can reduce your risk of getting sick by following these tips:
Visit beaches that regularly have clean water when sampled and check NRDC's Beach Map to find them.
Pay attention to contamination and advisory warnings and stay out of polluted water.
Avoid swimming at beaches with nearby discharge pipes or at urban beaches after heavy rainfall.
Stay out of murky or foul-smelling water.
Avoid beach water if you have an open wound or infection.
Swim without putting your head under water.
How Can You Help Make Polluted Beaches Cleaner?
Take Action: Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are accepting public input on their Clean Water Protection Rule, an initiative that would restore pollution control safeguards to a host of streams, wetlands and other waters that are not clearly protected today. This will help protect our beaches from pollution, because these waters filter pollution and absorb stormwater. To learn more and take action, click here.
Take Care at Home and at the Beach: One important way to clean up beach water starts at home, simply by capturing stormwater before it carries pollution to our shores. Use rain barrels or cisterns to capture stormwater, and reuse it for landscape irrigation to save on potable water costs. Incorporate green infrastructure like a rain garden, green roof, or permeable pavement, which allow rainwater to filter back into the ground where it falls or evaporate into the air. Demand that pollution control officials require that these smart techniques be used at runoff sources like big box stores, roadways, and parking lots. And once you hit the sand, help keep our beaches clean by picking up pet waste, putting swim diapers with plastic covers on babies, and keeping trash off the beach.
Ask Congress to Fund Proper Monitoring: Vigilant monitoring of water quality remains one of the greatest tools in reversing this pollution legacy. The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act helped states and local governments develop monitoring programs, but with chronic underfunding from Congress, many beaches suffering contamination are still not monitored regularly, and with a proposed budget cut from the Obama administration, they could be monitored even less frequently in the future. The budget cut could severely undermine state beach programs, at a dangerous cost to public health.
Demand Effective Standards: The EPA has issued new standards for allowable bacteria levels in recreational water, deeming acceptable a gastrointestinal risk of 36 illnesses for every 1,000 beachgoers. That means the EPA would find it acceptable if 1 in 28 swimmers got sick. (Just imagine a restaurant where 1 in 28 people were allowed to get sick—these are simply unacceptable standards.) You can help by speaking out. Demand use of the federal "beach action value" in your state—to make swimming advisory decisions that more fully protect public health.