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Heading to the Beach? Know Which Are the Cleanest and Which Are the Dirtiest

10% of U.S. beach waters fail to meet EPA’s safety standards, and some are downright filthy.

Photo Credit: Trubavin/Shutterstock


Towel, check! Sunscreen, check! Flip flops, check! Water quality testing kit, check? According to a report released today, summer getaways to the sandy shoreline may be more damaging to personal health than good.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s 24th annual beach report, Testing the Waters, has found that 10 percent of all water quality samples collected last year contained bacteria levels that failed to meet the US Environmental Protection Agency’s new benchmark for swimmer safety. Samples were collected from nearly 3,500 US coastal and Great Lakes beaches. The findings confirm that serious water pollution persists at many American shores.

Using the EPA’s newly-created “Beach Action Value” (BAV) as a benchmark, the report identified 35 popular “superstar” beaches with excellent water quality, and flagged 17 “repeat offenders” that exhibited chronic water pollution problems. (See chart)

According to the EPA, 3.5 million Americans contract illness from contact with raw sewage in public recreational waters each year. Many public health experts predict, however, that this number is actually much higher. “People who get sick from swimming in polluted recreational waters are not always aware of the cause of their illness and do not report it to doctors or local health officials,” the report states.

The main source of beach water contamination in the United States is storm water runoff. After big rainstorms, overworked drainage systems overflow and untreated sewage seeps into nearby waterways, placing beachgoers at acute risk of bacterial and viral disease. Children, the elderly, and pregnant women are most susceptible to illness from beach water pollution.

When deciding whether to issue precautionary public health warnings prior to 2013, state beach authorities relied on set, and rather lax, EPA water quality standards. These standards were inadequate, the report says. Under the old benchmarks, the EPA found it acceptable for 36 out of every 1,000 beachgoers to become ill with gastroenteritis, an intestinal and stomach infection that causes vomiting, nausea, and/or stomachache.

The EPA’s new Beach Action Value is lower than the value previously used, reducing the acceptable risk of exposure to 32 out of every 1,000 beachgoers. The BAV is not regulatory and only meant to provide guidance for state beaches on when to post health advisories. The EPA refers to the BAV as “a conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions.” The standard is not, however, legally enforceable.

This places great weight on individual beachgoers to research water quality prior to trips to the lake or sea. The NRDC offers an online,  interactive map allowing people to view a list of “superstar” beaches with excellent water quality and “repeat-offenders” with consistent pollution problems. Users can also search for specific beach water quality reports based on zip code.

Although the NRDC fully supports a strict preemptive health warning system, the council’s 2014 report stresses a dire need for action beyond advisories. “Beach water pollution comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is often upstream. That makes tributaries and other upstream water bodies critical to the water quality downstream, including at the beach,” says Jon Devine, a senior attorney with NRDC’s water program

Green infrastructure and wetlands restoration will help buffer beaches from toxic sewage runoff. “The best way of avoiding runoff-related pollution is to reduce the volume of storm water flowing into the storm drains that carry it to nearby water bodies,” the report says. Infrastructure that mimics natural conditions of rainwater infiltration such as porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings, and rain barrels can help prevent drainage overflow.

In addition to green infrastructure, the report also urges citizens and the powers-that-be to petition for passage of the US Army Corps of Engineers and EPA’s proposed  Clean Water Protection Rule. The new rule would strengthen pollution safeguards for nearly two million miles of streams and millions of acres of wetlands connected to larger bodies of water. If this proposed amendment to the 1972 Clean Water Act is implemented, watershed drainage basins, such as oceans and other large bodies of water, will be more adequately protected from upstream agriculture and sewage runoff.

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