Testing the Waters
A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches
2012 Report Findings:
Our nation's beaches continue to experience significant water pollution that hurts local economies and puts the health of beachgoers and swimmers at risk.
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Frequently Asked Questions
- How widespread is beach pollution?
- What are the major causes of beach pollution?
- Could I get sick from swimming in contaminated beachwater?
- Could I get sick from swimming in animal waste?
- Who is most at risk?
- How many Americans get sick from swimming in contaminated beachwater?
- How can I protect myself from getting sick?
- Aren't beaches tested to make sure that they are safe?
- Why isn't beachwater testing sufficient?
- If states close beaches, won't they damage coastal economies?
- What can be done to make swimming at our beaches safer?
- What are red tides and are they dangerous to swim in?
- How could climate change affect the health of the water at my beach?
1. How widespread is beach pollution?
Every coastal state has a beach with pollution problems. In 2011, beach pollution prompted 23,481 closing and swimming advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches. That's the third-highest number of closing and advisory days since NRDC began issuing its annual Testing the Waters report 22 years ago.
According to the most recent data available, 56 percent of reported beaches are monitored, and 45 percent are monitored at least once a week. Increased monitoring continues to highlight the extensive problem of beachwater pollution.
2. What are the major causes of beach pollution?
The most frequently identified pollution source is stormwater, which led to 10,954 closing and health advisory days in 2011, followed by miscellaneous sources such as wildlife and boat discharges which accounted for 2,690 closing/advisory days, and sewage spills and overflows, which accounted for 1,541 closing and advisory days.
Rain is often a contributing factor to beachwater pollution. Heavy rain can overwhelm sewage systems, forcing raw sewage directly into coastal waters, bypassing treatment plants. And as rainwater washes over land, it picks up pollutants and carries them directly to coastal waters. Pollutants found in stormwater include trash, motor oil, pet waste, pesticides, fertilizer, animal droppings, and anything else that washes off developed land when it rains.
But in many cases, communities simply haven't tracked down the sources of beachwater pollution. Nearly 70% of closing and advisory days in 2011 were issued because monitoring revealed the presence of bacteria associated with fecal contamination. But officials often could not identify the source of this contamination. Local and state agencies should step up efforts to investigate such pollution.
3. 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, stomach flu, 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.
4. Could I get sick from swimming in animal waste?
Yes. Although some pathogens in animal waste, do not transfer to humans, others (such as E coli 0157) can make humans very ill. Considerable research still needs to be done to determine the extent of the risk posed to humans by exposure to pathogens from animal waste. But until scientific research demonstrates otherwise, it is best to assume that it's not safe to swim in beachwater that contains excessive levels of human or animal waste.
5. Who is most at risk?
Small children, elderly people, pregnant women, 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 exposure to waterborne illnesses. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children under the age of 9 had more reports of diarrhea and vomiting from exposure to waterborne parasites than any other age group.
6. How many Americans get sick from swimming in contaminated beachwater?
We do not have good national 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.
7. 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 frequently 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.
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 you were exposed to contaminated water. Contact your county health department to report your illness.
8. 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 and Coastal Health Act of 2000 (BEACH Act), which provides assistance to state and local governments to develop monitoring programs. According to NRDC's annual beach report, Testing the Waters, 45 percent of beaches that reported to the EPA and NRDC were monitored at least once a week in 2011. But many beaches still are not monitored regularly, in part because Congress has never fully funded the BEACH Act. Even worse, the Obama administration has proposed to eliminate BEACH Act funding for states for the upcoming fiscal year. If adopted, this proposal would undoubtedly mean less monitoring and poorer notification of beach conditions.
9. Why isn't current beachwater testing sufficient?
Even beachwater that is regularly monitored for pollution is not necessarily safe on any given day. The tests take 24 hours to produce results, and many beaches wait to 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.
Unfortunately, EPA is proposing new allowable bacteria levels in recreational waters (called "criteria") that miss a critical opportunity to better protect the public from the dangers of swimming in polluted water. In fact, in some respects the draft criteria are even less protective than the 25-year-old criteria they would replace. Most egregiously, the draft criteria are based on what EPA has determined is an acceptable gastrointestinal illness risk of 3.6%. That is, EPA believes it is acceptable for 1 in 28 swimmers to become ill with gastroenteritis from swimming in water that just meets its proposed water quality criteria.
10. If states close beaches, won't they damage coastal economies?
The primary purpose of beach closings is to protect public health. Although there may be short-term impacts to local economies from beach closings, public confidence is enhanced by the knowledge that effective beach protection and cleanup programs are in place. Ultimately, coastal economies will be bolstered if beachwater pollution sources are cleaned up. One study estimated that the annual health costs associated with gastroenteritis, also known as the stomach flu, come to between $21 million and $51 million for Los Angeles and Orange county beaches alone.
11. What can be done to make swimming at our beaches safer?
Our beaches would be safer for swimming if they were cleaner. Federal, state and local governments should make beachwater pollution prevention a priority by requiring better controls on stormwater and sewage. Stormwater is the largest known source of pollution causing beach advisories or closings. One of the best ways to curb stormwater pollution is by implementing green infrastructure techniques in communities to retain and filter rainwater where it falls and let it soak back into the ground, rather than allowing it to overflow into waterways. This includes strategically placed rain gardens in yards, tree boxes along city sidewalks, green roofs, and permeable pavement. By capturing and storing stormwater in rain barrels or cisterns, we can also reuse it for irrigation or other non-potable uses.
The Environmental Protection Agency is presently planning a major reform of its regulations governing urban and suburban runoff pollution. These rule changes represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance communities' ability to retain stormwater rather than discharge it.
Individuals can also help control water pollution by taking simple actions such as picking up pet waste, putting swim diapers with plastic covers on babies and keeping trash off the beach.
12. What are red tides and are they dangerous to swim in?
Red tides are massive blooms of certain species of microscopic algae that produce toxins dangerous to humans and marine life. Inhaling, swallowing or coming into skin contact with these toxins can result in serious and potentially life-threatening human illnesses. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and chills, among many others. Red tides have killed dolphins and manatees in Florida and also are a suspected cause of sea turtle and whale deaths.
Red tides in Florida and elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico are becoming more common. The tides can occur for a variety of reasons, but they appear to be made worse by an overload of nutrients in the water, brought on by inadequately treated sewage, farm waste and fertilizer runoff.
13. How could climate change affect the health of the water at my beach?
Climate change will make beachwater pollution worse. In some communities, it will lead to more frequent and intense rainstorms, temperature increases, flooding, and sea level rise, as well as increased stormwater pollution and sewer overflows—leading to more contamination and pathogens in your beachwater. Climate change is also expected to increase pathogen populations that cause stomach flu and other, potentially life-threatening diseases in coastal waters.