EPA Proposal Allows 1 in 28 People to get Sick at U.S. Beaches

A new EPA proposal to address pollution at U.S. beaches allows 1 in 28 people to get sick when they go to the beach.  Imagine a school fieldtrip to the beach – for every large conventional school bus, nearly three kids would be put at risk of getting an illness like diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting.  

Now imagine if a restaurant was allowed to serve food that would make 1 in 28 people sick.  The public wouldn’t tolerate it.  Yet EPA somehow is considering allowing 1 in 28 swimmers to get sick at the beach.  It’s outrageous and a serious health risk that cannot and should not be ignored.

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 required EPA to issue by 2005 recreational beach criteria “for the purpose of protecting human health” at coastal and Great Lake beaches.  When EPA failed to meet this deadline, NRDC sued and secured a court order requiring EPA to follow the law.  EPA’s new proposal claims to do this, but it is far less protective of the public health than current science and good public policy dictate.

So just how did we get here?

EPA says it is because the risks of highly credible gastrointestinal illnesses are acceptable at the levels of beach contamination EPA allows.  These types of illnesses include vomiting, diarrhea with fever and stomachache or nausea accompanied by a fever.  At the same time, however, EPA finds that 36 in 1,000 beachgoers (or 1 in 28 beachgoers) will suffer other types of gastrointestinal illnesses when they’re exposed to the same level of contamination.  These other types of illnesses include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomachache – basically, the same as the priority illnesses EPA is focused on, just minus the fever.  

But if I had to choose between diarrhea alone or diarrhea with a fever, I would choose neither.  And I bet most people would too.  EPA fails to address this devil’s dilemma, while also failing to properly account for other health outcomes like rash, eye infections and ear ailments – which occur far too frequently as well.

So why is EPA proposing to allow this distinction between illnesses?  EPA says it is because following its recommendations won’t cause any actual increase in public health risks; the level of allowable contamination really isn’t changing, we just now know more about some of the illnesses at that level.  But EPA must address all known risks to human health.  EPA’s proposal fails to do so as it sweeps the most fundamental and alarming point under the rug:  knowingly allowing 1 in 28 people to get sick is not protecting public health, nor is it legal. 

EPA’s proposal also allows water test results at beaches to be averaged over a period as long as 90 days and for one in every four samples to exceed safe levels before pollution reduction is required.  States can always do more, and, thankfully, many already are.  But EPA’s proposed approach could mask a serious pollution problem and expose families to an unnecessary risk of illness without any required cleanup.  This is entirely incompatible with the Clean Water Act’s goal of “fishable/swimmable” waters.  Quite simply, no one swims, paddles, or fishes in “average” water.  They come into contact with water in whatever condition they find it at that particular time.

EPA has failed here.  EPA has a responsibility to keep our waters healthy to ensure that we are too.  Instead, the agency glosses over its own science by ignoring the known risks of getting certain illnesses, like diarrhea, from swimming in contaminated waters.  EPA must protect human health by adopting protective criteria for U.S. beaches.  It should adopt a national standard far more protective than 1 in 28, and it should eliminate any use of the 90-day averaging period and any allowable exceedances.  Because, as many others have said, a day at the beach shouldn’t lead to a night at the hospital.  And sand in your shoes should be the worst thing you take home from a trip to the shore.

NRDC will be submitting comments on these and other flaws in EPA’s recent proposal.  I hope you will too.  Follow us @NRDCWater to learn how over the coming weeks.