NRDC to Sue Agency to Modernize Outdated Health Standards

WASHINGTON (May 24, 2006) -- To mark the Memorial Day start of the beach season, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) today announced it will sue the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to adequately protect the more than 180 million Americans who go to the shore every year from waterborne disease.

The EPA missed its congressionally mandated October 2005 deadline to revise outdated health standards for beachwater quality. The agency now says it will not be able to finish updating the standards, as required by the Beaches Environmental Assessment, Cleanup and Health Act of 2000 (BEACH Act), until 2011.

"A day at the beach should not turn into a night in the bathroom, or worse, in the hospital," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project and supervisor of the group's annual report on vacation beach water quality, which will come out later this summer. "There have been significant advances over the last two decades that we should be using to protect beachgoers. It shouldn't take the EPA 10 years to set new standards."

NRDC says the EPA should accelerate its timetable for proposing new standards, set standards that fully protect the public, and establish testing methods that will enable public health officials to make prompt decisions about closing their beaches and issuing advisories. As required by law, NRDC is giving the agency 60 days notice before officially filing the suit. (For NRDC's letter of intent to sue, click here.)

Today's beachwater quality standards, which were set in 1986, use outdated monitoring methods that may leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of illnesses.

"The current standards focus on bacteria, because years ago we didn't know as much about other disease-causing organisms," explained Dr. Joan Rose, director of Michigan State University's Center for Water Sciences and chair of the EPA Science Advisory Board's Drinking Water Committee. "We now have methods that can detect viruses and parasites -- which can cause serious health problems -- but they're not being used."

The outdated standards have serious deficiencies, said Stoner. For example, they:

  • fail to warn beachgoers quickly enough about contamination. They only indicate whether the water was safe for swimming 24 to 48 hours earlier, not on the day the samples were taken.

  • may not protect beachgoers from rashes, ear aches, pink eye or respiratory infections, or from very serious illnesses such as hepatitis and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). They focus on gastroenteritis, which includes diarrhea, vomiting and stomach aches.

  • were designed protect against sewage pollution, but may not protect swimmers from waterborne diseases carried by animal feces, which are washed into coastal waters when it rains.

  • fail to protect the public from parasites that carry disease, such as cryptosporidium and giardia.

  • are insufficient to protect those most likely to die from infectious diseases contracted from swimming in contaminated beachwater -- the elderly, small children, cancer patients and others with impaired immune systems.

An estimated 7 million Americans are sickened by contaminated water -- including recreational and drinking water -- every year. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is an upward trend in the number of waterborne diseases associated with recreational waters.

"In most cases, contaminated beachwater makes people sick for a couple of days, which is definitely no fun," said Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, director of Global Health at Tufts University School of Medicine and member of the EPA Science Advisory Board's Drinking Water Committee. "But for as much as 25 percent of the population -- older folks, small kids, and people with weak immune systems -- exposure could mean something much worse, even death. There's a lot more that we should and could be doing to protect beachgoers."

Before the EPA can set new standards, it must investigate the illnesses associated with swimming in contaminated water and closely examine pollution, pathogens and waterborne diseases to ensure that the new standards will fully protect beachgoers, Stoner said. Congress directed the agency to complete those studies by October 2003, but the agency still has not done so.

"Not only has EPA failed to do its job, Congress routinely shortchanges programs designed to clean up the pollution that contaminates beachwater," Stoner added. She said that the EPA and Congress need to coordinate efforts to:

  • fully fund BEACH Act beachwater monitoring programs. Congress has funded these programs at only a third of the amount it originally authorized.

  • substantially increase federal funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and other programs that would reduce beachwater pollution.

  • tighten controls on sewage and stormwater pollution. Most of the bacteria, viruses and parasites that make coastal waters unsafe can be removed before they reach the beach.

In the meantime, 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. (For more information about beachwater pollution and waterborne disease, click here.)