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Gulf Oil Spill's Toll on Nation's Beaches

Report Cites Thousands of Beach Closings, Advisories, and a Host of Possible Health Problems
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2009 Beach Water Quality Ratings continued...

In 2009, the number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches topped 18,000 for the fifth consecutive year, the new report shows. This is the sixth highest level in the 20 years that the group has been tracking water quality information.

What can be done to clean up our beaches? A lot. Devine says.

"Policy makers can do a lot to clean up the sources of storm water and sewage pollution, and we encourage them to do that by broadly implementing 'green' infrastructure," Devine says. This involves using vegetation -- green strips on highways, parking lots, and roofs -- to absorb storm water where it falls and make sure this water doesn’t pick up human and animal waste on its way to the beach.

Beachgoers should check the Internet for water advisories before packing up the car and heading to the surf. "Stay away from beaches with visible pollution and don't swim after a heavy rainfall," Devine says. "Give it at least a day so [pollutants] break down," he says. This is especially important for people who are vulnerable to contaminated beach water, such as small children, elderly people, pregnant women, and people with cancer or weakened immune systems.

Look for pipes along the beach that drain storm water runoff from the streets, and don't swim near them, he says.

Improvements in the water monitoring system can also help keep beachcombers safer, Devine says.

The current water surveillance program only looks for a couple of bugs that cause gastrointestinal illness. "We can do a lot better about identifying a broader range of potential contaminants at the beach," he tells WebMD. 

Another area that needs improvement is the speed at which water quality is tested, he says. It takes 24 hours to get water quality results. "In essence, it's a day old so it applies to yesterday's water."

Curious how your favorite beach stacks up? Visit www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/200beaches.asp.

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