Pollution at the nation’s 3,500 ocean, lake and bay beaches resulted in more than 25,000 closing or swimming advisory days last year, 28 percent more than in 2005, and the highest number in the 17 years that records have been kept, according to a new federal report released Tuesday.
The prime culprit was storm water runoff, which carries pollutants into the water, accounting for 10,000 of the closings — twice the number of a year before, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said in its annual “Testing the Waters” report.
Another 1,300 days were attributed to sewage spills and overflows. The rest of the closings and advisory days were based on fecal contamination, the sources of which could not be determined.
“Exposure to bacteria, viruses and parasites in contaminated beach water can cause a wide range of diseases, including ear, nose and eye infections; gastroenteritis; hepatitis; encephalitis; skin rashes; and respiratory illnesses,” the NRDC report stated. “Most waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States occur during the summer, when Americans are most likely to be exposed to contaminated beach water. Experts estimate that as many as 7 million Americans get sick every year from drinking or swimming in water contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites.”
Most illnesses never reportedMost at risk are small children, pregnant women, cancer patients and others whose immune systems are weak or compromised. “Children under the age of 9 had more reports of diarrhea and vomiting from exposure to waterborne parasites than any other age group,” the independent NRDC said, citing statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many illnesses contracted by swimmers from polluted water are never reported. But, the NRDC reported, an EPA study of the Great Lakes from 2002-03, “found that more than 10 percent of swimmers report contracting gastroenteritis or respiratory infections after swimming. Based on those results and beach attendance numbers, nearly 300 people could expect to contract a respiratory illness after swimming in Lake Michigan in Chicago on a summer weekend.
Another study was conducted by six Mission Bay beaches in San Diego during the summer of 2003.
“The study found skin rash and diarrhea to be consistently significantly elevated in swimmers compared to non-swimmers. For diarrhea, this risk was strongest among children 5 to 12 years old, with more getting sick with increased degree of water contact: an estimated 27 cases per 1,000 among children with any water contact, 32 cases among those with facial contact with the water, and 59 cases among those who swallowed water,” the report said.
Problems existed in every state with ocean beaches, and the NRDC cited 92 beaches in 19 states as being “high risk” with unsafe water being detected in more than 25 percent of tests.
For the first time, the “Testing the Waters” report took a particularly close look at what it called America’s highest-risk beaches, which are those that are either highly popular, close to sources of pollution or both. In that category, beaches in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Rhode Island and Minnesota were the poorest at meeting federal standards.
“Aging and poorly-designed sewage and storm water systems hold much of the blame for beach water pollution. The problem was compounded by record rainfall, which added to the strain on already overloaded infrastructure. The authors also say that careless urban sprawl in coastal areas is devouring wetlands and other natural buffers such as dunes and beach grass that would otherwise help filter out dangerous pollution,” the report said.
“A summer rainstorm should not have to mean that endless amounts of pollution are washed down to the beach, or that sewers will overflow,” said Nancy Stoner, the director of the NRDC water program. “We can fix leaky pipes; we can require costal developers to maintain vegetation to absorb rain. The solutions are out there.”
Perhaps most troubling in the report was the conclusion that “most authorities are not even attempting to identify pollution sources, much less control them.”
The NRDC is pushing for passage of the Beach Protection Act of 2007, now pending in Congress, to double the federal funds available for grants that can be used to identify sources of pollution.
It also called for updating water quality standards and tests for pathogens.
“The federal public-health standard is more than 20 years old, does not provide information on the full range of waterborne illnesses that make beachgoers sick, and usually provides information that is 24–48 hours old. So, even if a beach is deemed ‘safe’ under the federal public health standard, it may still contain undetected human or animal waste that can make swimmers sick,” the report said.
The council also urged the EPA and state agencies to “tighten and enforce controls on all sources of beach water pollution.” It called on federal and state governments to “make preventing beach water pollution a priority,” and recommended using a portion of tourism revenues to pay for monitoring and prevention programs.
But, the NRDC said, private citizens and beachgoers can help, too: “Simple measures, including conserving water, redirecting runoff, using such natural fertilizers as compost for gardens, maintaining septic systems, and properly disposing of animal waste, litter, toxic household products and used motor oil can reduce the amount of pollution in coastal waters.”
Follow the link below for the full list of the nation's best and worst beaches, in terms of water quality.
The best and worst
The Natural Resources Defense Council’s annual “Testing the Waters” report cited 13 beaches that the council says do the best job of protecting the public, along with six beaches that have the highest percentage of closing and swimming advisory days.
The 13 “Beach Buddies,” which met public health standards more than 90 percent of the time in 2006, were:
• North Carolina: Kure Beach and Kill Devil Hills Beach• Wisconsin: Sister Bay Beach and North Beach • California: Laguna Beach • Michigan: Grand Haven City Beach and Grand Haven State Park beaches • Maine: Libby Cove, Mother’s, Middle, Cape Neddick, Short Sands and York Harbor beaches.
The “Beach Bums” failed to meet federal health standards more than half the time. They were:
• California: Avalon Beach (north of Green Pleasure Pier) (53%) and Venice State Beach (57%)• Maryland: Hacks Point (60%) and Bay Country Campground and Beach (56%)• New Jersey: Beachwood Beach West (60%) • Illinois: Jackson Park Beach (54%)
In addition, for the first time, the NRDC named a “Beach Hero,” recognizing an individual for exceptional contributions to water quality. He is Dr. Carl Berg, who was nominated by the Hawaii Department of Health. Berg, a marine ecologist, has invested considerable time in monitoring and protecting beaches, rivers and streams that make up the ecosystem of Hanalei Bay in Hawaii. He has helped farmers reduce the amount of soil erosion on their land and worked to replace cesspools in the beach park as well as on private land along the watershed.
: For more information on beach water pollution and other beach water issues.