Pollution Prompts Record Beach Closings
Beaches With Cleanest and Dirtiest Water Cited in Report
Storm Water Biggest Culprit
By far the biggest source of beach water contamination is runoff from
storms, which was responsible for 40% of beach closings and swimming advisories
in 2006. That's more than double the number just one year earlier, Stoner says.
Sewage spills led to another 5% of closings.
Stoner says the most dangerous time to swim at the beach in terms of water
quality is after a heavy rainfall because storm water runoff flows directly
into waterways, taking ground contaminants like pet wastes, pesticides, and
fertilizers with it.
"Basically anything that's on the streets washes into the waterways
untreated when it rains," she says. "That's why this is such a huge
Record rain levels in 2006 added to the strain on an already overloaded
storm system infrastructure. And unchecked development in and around coastal
areas has led to big declines in wetlands and dunes that could filter dangerous
pollution, she adds.
EPA Cites Progress
The NRDC report contrasts a more optimistic assessment of the country's
beach water quality issued by federal officials in May.
The Environmental Protection Agency's "2006 Swimming Season Update"
noted that more of the nation's beaches than ever are being monitored for water
quality and that beach closings in 2006 tended to be shorter than in 2005.
Benjamin Grumbles, who is the EPA's assistant administrator for water, tells
WebMD that better monitoring is largely responsible for the increase in beach
closings and advisories.
The passage of a coastal water's monitoring law by Congress in 2000 led to a
tripling of monitored beaches with public advisory programs, he says.
"We are seeing progress in keeping America's beaches clean, but
significant challenges remain," he says. "We don't believe [the 2006
figures] represent an actual increase in risk. What we are seeing is an
increase in monitoring and public awareness."
Grumbles says reports like those from NRDC and the EPA have increased public
awareness about beach water quality and have led to increased action at the
federal, state, and local level.
The EPA recently reached an agreement with the city of San Diego, which will
lead to a billion dollar sewer system upgrade designed to reduce sewage spills
and overflows, and the agency is currently studying new technology that could
reduce water contamination assessment times from several days to several
Bacteria, Viruses, and Parasites
All agree that swimming in contaminated water can make you very sick.
Exposure to bacteria, viruses, and parasites in dirty beach water is a
frequent cause of gastrointestinal illness; ear, nose and eye infections;
hepatitis; encephalitis; skin rashes; and respiratory illness.
Experts estimate that as many as 7 million Americans are made ill every year
by drinking or swimming in contaminated water. Most waterborne disease
outbreaks in the U.S. occur during the summer.
Beachgoers can reduce their chances of getting sick by staying out of the
water during swimming advisories and after heavy rainfalls, Stoner says.
"If you see pollution don't swim, and if there is trash on the beach
that is another warning sign," she says. "But just because beach water
looks clean that doesn't mean it is. You can't see all of the pollution that
can make you sick."