Frequently Asked Questions

  1. How widespread is beach pollution?
  2. What are the major causes of beach pollution?
  3. Could I get sick from swimming in contaminated beach water?
  4. Could I get sick from swimming in water contaminated by animal waste?
  5. Who is most at risk?
  6. How many Americans get sick from swimming in contaminated beach water?
  7. How can I protect myself from getting sick?
  8. Aren't beaches tested to make sure that they are safe?
  9. Why isn't beach water testing sufficient?
  10. If states close beaches, won't they damage coastal economies?
  11. What can be done to make swimming at our beaches safer?
  12. What are red tides and are they dangerous to swim in?
  13. How could climate change affect the health of the water at my beach?

1. How widespread is beach pollution?

Every coastal state has at least one beach with pollution problems. In 2013, more than 10 percent of beach water samples had water quality worse than the health-protective Beach Action Value that the Environmental Protection Agency has developed. At the nation's coastal and Great Lakes beaches, 13 percent of all samples taken were worse than that safety level. According to the most recent data available, 3,485 beaches were monitored in 2013—a six percent decrease from 2012.

2. What are the major causes of beach pollution?

As described in this report's Sources of Beach Pollution fact sheet, the most frequently identified pollution source that beach managers have historically blamed for beach closings and swimming advisories is stormwater, much more so than miscellaneous sources such as wildlife, boat discharges, and sewage spills and overflows.

Rain is often a factor contributing to beach water pollution. Heavy rain can overwhelm sewage systems, forcing raw sewage to bypass treatment plants and flow directly into coastal waters. And as rainwater washes over land, it picks up pollutants and carries them directly to coastal waters. Pollutants found in stormwater include trash, motor oil, pet waste, pesticides, fertilizer, animal droppings, and anything else that washes off developed land when it rains.

But in many cases, communities simply don't know the sources of their beach water pollution. NRDC has long advocated for a greater federal investment in local beach programs to enable officials to better identify and correct pollution sources.

3. Could I get sick from swimming in contaminated beach water?

Yes. Exposure to bacteria, viruses, and parasites in contaminated beach water can cause a wide range of diseases, including ear, nose, and eye infections; stomach flu; hepatitis; encephalitis; rashes; and respiratory illnesses. Most waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States occur during the summer, when Americans are most likely to be exposed to contaminated beach water.

4. Could I get sick from swimming in water contaminated by animal waste?

Yes. Although some pathogens in animal waste do not transfer to humans, others (such as E. coli 0157) can make humans ill. Additional scientific research needs to be done to determine the extent of the risk posed to humans by exposure to pathogens from animal waste. But until such research demonstrates otherwise, it is best to assume that it's not safe to swim in beach water that contains excessive levels of human or animal waste.

5. Who is most at risk?

Young children, elderly people, pregnant women, cancer patients, and others with weakened immune systems are most likely to get sick from swimming in contaminated beach water. They also are the most likely to be hospitalized or die from exposure to waterborne illnesses. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children under the age of 9 had more reports of diarrhea and vomiting from exposure to waterborne parasites than any other age group.

6. How many Americans get sick from swimming in contaminated beach water?

We do not have good national data on recreational waterborne disease outbreaks because most people treat the symptoms of their illness (for example, fever, headache, diarrhea, and vomiting) without ever finding out what caused them.

7. How can I protect myself from getting sick?

You can lessen your chances of getting sick at the beach by taking these precautions: 1) Swim only at beaches where authorities test the water frequently and close the beach or issue an advisory when it is polluted. 2) Stay out of the water when there are closings or advisories. 3) Avoid swimming at beaches with nearby discharge pipes or at urban beaches after a heavy rainfall. 4) Stay out of murky or foul-smelling water. 5) Avoid the water when you have an open wound or infection. 6) Swim without putting your head under water.

If you believe you have been exposed to contaminated water, rinse off well using soap and clean water, paying special attention to any skin abrasions. Use a mouthwash or clean water to gargle and spit out. Dry out your ears. Take a shower and wash swimsuits and towels (and other clothing that might have gotten wet) as soon as possible. If you start to feel sick, go to a doctor or another health care provider. Tell your doctor that you think you were exposed to contaminated water, and contact your county health department to report your illness.

8. Aren't beaches tested to make sure they are safe?

State and local health and environmental officials are responsible for monitoring water quality at our nation's beaches. When they find contaminated water, they may post warnings or close the beach.

Coastal beach monitoring has significantly improved in recent years due to passage of the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 (BEACH Act), which provides assistance to state and local governments to develop monitoring programs. But many beaches still are not monitored regularly, in part because Congress has never fully funded the BEACH Act. Even worse, the Obama administration has proposed to eliminate BEACH Act funding for states for the upcoming fiscal year. If adopted, this proposal would undoubtedly mean less monitoring and poorer notification of beach conditions.

9. Why isn't current beach water testing sufficient?

Even beach water that is regularly monitored for pollution is not necessarily safe on any given day. Most tests take 24 hours to produce results, and many officials will retest before closing a beach or issuing an advisory. Also, the tests are not designed to protect the public against the full range of waterborne illnesses or to protect sensitive populations.

In 2012 the EPA released new allowable bacteria levels in recreational waters (called "criteria") that missed a critical opportunity to better protect the public from the dangers of swimming in polluted water. In fact, in some respects the new criteria are even less protective than the 25-year-old ones they replaced. Most egregiously, the criteria are based on what the EPA has determined is an acceptable gastrointestinal illness risk of 3.6 percent. That is, the EPA believes it is acceptable for 36 in 1,000 swimmers (1 in 28) to become ill with gastroenteritis from swimming in water that just meets its proposed water quality criteria. Fortunately, the EPA also developed Beach Action Values (BAVs) that are more protective of public health. These BAVs are a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions." The EPA's proposed National Beach Guidance and Required Performance Criteria for Grants would require states receiving BEACH Act funding to use the BAV to trigger beach notifications. In light of this information, in assessing 2013 beach water quality NRDC has chosen to use the national BAV 60 cfu/100ml for enterococcus for marine beaches and 190 cfu/100 ml for E.coli for Great Lakes beaches in order to best protect beachgoers from water quality health risks.

10. If states close beaches, won't they damage coastal economies?

The primary purpose of beach closings is to protect public health. Although there may be short-term impacts to local economies from beach closings, public confidence is enhanced by the knowledge that effective beach protection and cleanup programs are in place. Ultimately, coastal economies will be bolstered if beach water pollution sources are cleaned up. One California study estimated that the annual health costs associated with gastroenteritis, also known as stomach flu, come to between $21 million and $51 million for Los Angeles and Orange County beaches alone.

11. What can be done to make swimming at our beaches safer?

Our beaches would be safer for swimming if they were cleaner. Federal, state, and local governments should make beach water pollution prevention a priority by requiring better controls on stormwater and sewage. Stormwater is the largest known source of pollution that causes beach advisories or closings. One of the best ways to curb stormwater pollution is by implementing green infrastructure techniques to retain and filter rainwater where it falls, and letting it soak back into the ground rather than allowing it to overflow into waterways. These techniques include strategically placed rain gardens in yards, tree boxes along city sidewalks, green roofs, and permeable pavement. By capturing and storing stormwater in rain barrels or cisterns, we can also reuse it for irrigation or other nonpotable purposes.

In addition, we must preserve the natural buffers that help prevent beach water pollution by absorbing stormwater. Wetlands retain stormwater and reduce polluted runoff; a single acre of wetland can store 1 million to 1.5 million gallons of water. Yet America is losing these natural protections; in the most recent national analysis, the Department of the Interior estimated that between 2004 and 2009 the continental United States experienced a net loss of 62,300 acres of wetlands. This trend is disturbing—but not surprising, because approximately 20 percent of the nation's wetlands are not being protected from destruction at all under the federal Clean Water Act, and many more lack full protection under the law. Fortunately, the Obama administration is acting to preserve our nation's water resources by clarifying what streams, wetlands, and other waters are covered under the Clean Water Act. The administration's Clean Water Protection Rule is out for public comment right now; please stand up for clean water and the wetlands that help preserve it by taking action to support this initiative.

Beach managers can help keep the swimming public safe by communicating the risks of swimming using the most health-protective guidelines for doing so. Adoption of rapid test methods is an important action beach managers can take to better protect the public. The use of the EPA's Beach Action Values is another good way to ensure the public is adequately protected from the risks of swimming in contaminated waters.

Individuals can also help control water pollution by taking simple actions such as picking up pet waste, putting swim diapers with plastic covers on babies, and keeping trash off the beach.

12. What are red tides, and are they dangerous to swim in?

Red tides are massive blooms of certain species of microscopic algae that produce toxins dangerous to humans and marine life. Inhaling, swallowing, or coming into skin contact with these toxins can result in serious and potentially life-threatening human illnesses. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, and chills, among many others. Red tides killed a record number of manatees in Florida in 2013 and are a suspected cause of sea turtle and whale deaths as well.

Red tides in Florida and elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico are becoming more common. The tides can occur for a variety of reasons, but they appear to be made worse by an overload of nutrients in the water, brought on by inadequately treated sewage, farm waste, and fertilizer runoff.

13. How could climate change affect the health of the water at my beach?

Climate change will make beach water pollution worse. In some communities, it will lead to more frequent and intense rainstorms, temperature increases, flooding, and sea level rise, as well as increased stormwater pollution and sewer overflows—leading to more contamination and pathogens in your beach water. Climate change is also expected to increase pathogen populations that cause stomach flu and other, potentially life-threatening diseases in coastal waters.

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