A day at the beach can be hazardous to your health, researchers say. About 10% of America's beaches failed a new federal benchmark for what constitutes safe swimming water in the past year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council's 24th annual beach report.
Nearly 3,500 water quality samples were collected from beaches along the East and West Coast as well as the Great Lakes, and only one in 10 passed the new Environmental Protection Agency water safety standard, which the NRDC used to evaluate beaches for the first time in 2013. Even with the new standard, the portion of polluted U.S. beaches is about the same as in 2012 when the old standard was in place.
"Results in this year show uptick in failure rate at 10% nationwide, but this reflects a newer more health-protected (standard of safety test)," NRDC senior attorney Jon Devine said. "If we were to compare to the old defunct standard, it would have been about 7% of samples; which tells us we're stagnating in terms of progress of water protection."
The pollution is most often caused by storm water runoff and sewage overflow, causing the water to be overrun by disease-causing bacteria, said NRDC water program director Steve Fleischli. Illnesses that can be spread by contact with polluted beach water include stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis, according to the report. Children are more vulnerable because they tend to swallow more water when swimming, Fleischli said.
The EPA estimated that up to 3.5 million people become ill from contact with raw sewage in swimming water each year.
"Sewage and contaminated runoff in the water should never ruin a family beach trip," Devine said. "But no matter where you live, urban slobber and other pollution can seriously compromise the water quality at your favorite beach and make your family sick."
Regionally, the Great Lakes showed the highest level of polluted beaches, followed by the Gulf Coast, New England and the West Coast. The regions with the lowest level of pollution were the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) region, the Southeast and the New York-New Jersey region.
"The (Great Lakes) tend to have a lot of sources of urban pollution and urban slobber," Fleischli said. "Because lakes are basically a closed system, circulation is not as robust, so water could stagnate in those."
The new EPA water safety standard, called the Beach Action Value, has a higher threshold for what is deemed healthy swimming water compared to the old test, but uses the same measuring techniques, testing for high bacteria counts in beach water– which usually indicates human or animal waste.
In addition to pushing the Beach Action Value test, the NRDC is backing a policy change to remedy the increasingly polluted public beaches around America. The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have proposed the Clean Water Protection Rule, which would strengthen natural pollution safeguards, such as streams and wetlands. These water bodies act as a natural filtering system for pollution headed toward beaches, preventing polluted stormwater runoff and filtering harmful bacteria, Devine said.
"The thing about natural resources is they're providing important services for free and all we got to do is make sure they're not destroyed," Devine said.