If you’re one of the millions of Americans who planned a trip to the beach this summer, beware: your beach might not be as clean as you think! According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the number of US beach closing and swim advisories exceeded 20,000 in 2012—marking the eighth time in the last nine years.
Closings and advisories arise when over 10% of samples surpass EPA standards for bacteria limits. But where do the bacteria come from? Storm water runoff is the main culprit, allowing “our urban slobber [to run] untreated in our waterways”. Sewage spills and overflows, full of human waste, are also to blame.
Contact with such contaminated water carries significant risk, particularly for children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with weak immune systems. Effects can include ear, nose, and eye infections; diarrhea; vomiting; hepatitis; encephalitis; skin rashes; and respiratory illnesses”.
Fortunately, many environmental non-profits are working to ensure that “the public has the information they need to protect the health of surfers and swimmers”. The NRDC, for example, conducts an annual survey of more than 3,000 fresh and saltwater beaches in the United States. It also “rates 200 of the most popular beaches on a 5 star scale”, awarding 5 stars to just 13 beaches in 2012.
Additionally, the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international network of environmental organizations, has created a free smart-phone application that provides the latest water-quality ratings. Called “the Swim Guide”, it also uses color coding to “designate the cleanest and safest beaches” across the United States.
Certainly, both tools can help protect the public from unhealthy beaches. But why not solve the root problem? Among other efforts, homeowners can capture and re-use stormwater and install green infrastructure (e.g. green roofs and permeable pavement) on their properties. Beachgoers can pick up pet waste and keep swim diapers on babies. Furthermore, the public can report risks to waterways and lobby the government for higher water quality standards.
To learn more about what you can do, and the water quality at your local beach, visit: The NRDC and The Swim Guide. Also, please support our partner, the Ocean River Institute, which helps protect our waterways.
Flickr photo credit: Daniel Piraino