A good trip to the beach comes with sun, surf and relaxation. Leaving with sand and smiles are common, but feeling ill should never be. But the water at your local beach might be contaminated by human and animal waste, putting your health at risk: bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens in that waste can make exposed swimmers sick.
What causes this contamination? Last year, across the country, the largest known contributor to beach closings or health advisory days was stormwater pollution. Likewise, untreated sewage spills and overflows were frequently to blame for closing or advisory days.
This report presents information on water quality and beach closings and swimming advisories at more than 3,000 U.S. beaches along the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes. In addition, we've rated 200 of the nation's popular beaches, based on their water quality and monitoring and notification practices.
Protecting swimmers from bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants in beachwater requires leadership. Federal officials must help clean up polluted stormwater runoff—the most commonly identified cause of beach closings and swimming advisories—by developing national rules that require pollution sources to prevent stormwater where it starts by retaining it on-site.
The Environmental Protection Agency must also set beachwater quality standards protective of human health and provide states with the support they need to monitor beach pollution and notify the public when pollution levels are high.
Children, the elderly, pregnant women, cancer patients and those with weakened immune systems are most likely to get sick from swimming in contaminated water—they are also most likely to be seriously ill from exposure to waterborne illnesses.
Exposure to bacteria, viruses and parasites in contaminated water can cause symptoms and diseases ranging from ear, nose, and eye infections, diarrhea, vomiting, hepatitis, encephalitis, skin rashes, and respiratory illnesses. You can reduce your risk of getting sick by following these tips:
Visit frequently-monitored beaches and check NRDC's Beach Map to find them
Pay attention to contamination and advisory warnings and stay out of polluted water
Avoid swimming at beaches with nearby discharge pipes or at urban beaches after heavy rainfall
Stay out of murky or foul-smelling water
Avoid beachwater if you have an open wound or infection
Swim without putting your head under water
How Can You Help Make Polluted Beaches Cleaner?
At Home: One important way to clean up beachwater starts at home, simply by capturing stormwater before it carries pollution to our shores. Use rain barrels or cisterns to capture stormwater and re-use it for landscape irrigation to save on potable water costs. Incorporate green infrastructure in your yard like rain gardens, green roofs and permeable pavement which allow rainwater to replenish filter back into the ground where it falls or evaporate into the air. Demand that pollution control officials require that these smart techniques be used at stormwater sources like big box stores, roadways and parking lots.
At the Beach: Once you hit the sand, help keep our beaches clean by picking up pet waste, putting swim diapers with plastic covers on babies and keeping trash off the beach.
Proper Monitoring: Vigilant monitoring of water quality remains one of the greatest tools in reversing this pollution legacy. The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) helped states and local governments develop monitoring programs, but with chronic underfunding from Congress and a proposed budget cut from the Obama administration, many beaches suffering contamination are still not monitored regularly, and could be monitored even less frequently in the future. The budget cut could severely undermine state beach programs, at a dangerous cost to public health.
Demand Effective Standards: The EPA has issued new standards for allowable bacterial levels in recreational water, deeming acceptable a gastrointestinal risk of 36 illnesses for every 1,000 beachgoers. That means EPA would find it acceptable if 1 in 28 swimmers got sick. (Just imagine a restaurant where 1 in 28 people were allowed to get sick—these are simply unacceptable standards.) NRDC is fighting EPA on this reckless and illegal failure to protect the public and you can help by speaking out.