Guide to Finding a Clean Beach

How to Find Out if a Beach is Tested for Pollution—and What Authorities Do If They Find It.

Wondering how clean the water is at your favorite vacation beach? Finding an answer can be tricky. There is no national protocol for protecting the public from unsafe swimming water, so beach testing and closing/health advisory practices vary beach by beach and state by state. Some localities regularly test the water quality at their beaches, while others do not. Even when states and localities perform tests, they don't always notify the public or close beaches when bacteria levels in the water exceed health standards.

Finding Help Online

Here's how to check the safety of your favorite beach before heading out for a swim:

Start by checking Testing the Waters 2013. The NRDC report will give you the details on beachwater monitoring practices and standards and tell you how often those standards were exceeded in 2012. It also reports on whether local authorities notify the public when they discover beachwater pollution. Testing the Waters contains information on coastal and Great Lakes beaches.

Click here for ratings of of 200 popular U.S. beaches’ water quality, safety monitoring, and notification practices.

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photo: Jake RomeIn 2012, there were 20,120 days of closings and advisories at U.S. beaches

The Environmental Protection Agency's Beaches website is also full of useful information, including an interactive database of water quality testing, beach closures, and advisories. The agency's beach Do’s and Don'ts also offers tips about how you can help to improve water quality at the beach.

Finding Help at the Local or State Health Department

In most cases, staff members at your town or county health department will be able to answer your questions about local beachwater monitoring. You also can contact your state's health or environmental protection agency. The information for EPA regional beach contacts and state, tribe and territory beach contacts can be found here.

When you contact local or state health officials, ask:

  • What are the sources of pollution affecting the waters where I swim?
  • What sort of water quality monitoring for swimmer safety is performed at these beaches?
  • Are beaches always closed or the public notified when monitoring shows that the bacterial standard is exceeded?
  • What is the current status of these waters (are they closed or open), and what warning signs should I look for if there are water pollution problems?

Avoiding Polluted Beaches

In some cases, beachwater quality test results may be announced on local radio and TV, printed in the newspaper or posted on a website. Also be on the lookout for posted signs at the beach before you swim.

Whenever possible, swim at beaches that your research shows have the cleanest water, are carefully monitored, and have strict closure and advisory procedures. If your beach is not monitored regularly, there are some things you can do to avoid swimming in polluted water:

  • If possible, choose beaches that are next to open waters or away from urban areas. They typically pose less of a health risk than beaches in developed areas or in enclosed bays and harbors with little water circulation.
  • Look for pipes along the beach that drain stormwater runoff from the streets, and don't swim near them. Avoid swimming in beachwater that is cloudy or smells bad.
  • Keep your head out of the water.
  • Avoid swimming for at least 24 hours after it rains and 72 hours after heavy rains.
  • Contact local health officials if you suspect beachwater contamination so that others can be protected from exposure.

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