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Testing the Waters: Are the Nation's Beaches Safe?

WebMD Health News

Aug. 3, 2000 (Washington) -- The current system of monitoring makes it difficult to tell what you're getting into before you take a dip at the beach. However, you can arm yourself with information about which states have had to close their pollution plagued beaches most often, courtesy of the tenth annual beach report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit coalition of environmental scientists, lawyers, and specialists.

"We can't say because there isn't any consistent monitoring for pollution and bacteria," says Sarah Chasis, JD, an NRDC senior attorney and director of the NRDC beach report. "But we can say that some areas appear to have a pollution problem."

The report is a survey of beach closings due to sewage and storm water discharges, which together account for the majority of the pollution plaguing the waters of America's beaches. Since its inception in 1991, the report has been credited with providing the impetus for at least nine states and 27 local agencies in another eight states to initiate or expand their monitoring programs. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now also participates in issuing the report, the intent of which is to alert vacationers about water quality problems.

Effective monitoring and public notification of pollution problems is imperative because swimming in polluted waters can make you sick, Chasis explains. Polluted waters contain several different disease-causing organisms, which can cause anything from stomach problems to respiratory infections and even hepatitis, she says.

According to the report released Wednesday, the greatest number of beach closings during 1999 took place in California, which recorded more than 3,500 closings and public advisories. A distant second was Florida, with almost 700 closings and public advisories; the Virgin Islands were next, with just over 300 closings and advisories. Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois -- in that order -- follow in the number of closings and advisories.

But before rushing to judgement, it is imperative to remember that only 11 states currently monitor most or all of their beaches and notify the public about water quality problems, Chasis says. These states include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, she says.

The beach bums -- states that either have no regular monitoring program or public notification procedures to warn beach goers about quality problems -- are Louisiana, Oregon, Texas, and Washington, according to the report.

The best beaches, or places that at least monitor their water using the latest standards, include East Haven Town Beach in East Haven, Conn.; North Beach and Oceanside at the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland; Revere Beach in Revere, Mass.; and Short Beach in Winthrop, Mass., the report says.

While widespread drought meant fewer pollution problems for the nation's beaches in 1999, beach closings and advisories continued to run at record highs, indicating that too little is being done to prevent beach pollution, Chasis adds. In total, there were more than 6,000 closings and advisories in 1999, a 50% increase over 1997, according the report. The total is lower than 1998, but during that year, El Niño storms in Southern California jacked up the number of beach closings and advisories, she says.

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