America’s Cleanest—And Most Polluted—Beaches

2015-04-17T08:40:24+00:00 July 1, 2014|
If a beach has signs that warn about contaminated water, it's probably not the best idea to swim. (Credit: Hannah Arista Photography)

(Click to enlarge) If a beach has signs that warn about contaminated water, it’s probably not the best idea to swim. (Credit: Hannah Arista Photography)

As the summer days grow hotter, there’s nothing better than taking a trip to the beach or lake for a refreshing dip. But are you sure the deliciously cool waters you (or your family) are swimming in are safe?

(From Smithsonian Magazine / by Natasha Geiling) — According to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), nearly ten percent of beaches along our country’s oceans and Great Lakes fail to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s most protective benchmark for swimmer safety—which means that, at many of the country’s beaches, pollution continues to plague the waters.

This pollution is not just empty beer bottles or plastic rings. It comes primarily from urban runoff and sewage systems, and it contains bacteria that can make people sick.

“From polluted waters, beachgoers can get anything from stomach flu and pink eye to more major stuff like hepatitis and meningitis,” explains Jon Devine, senior water attorney at NRDC. “Really nasty stuff.”

One of the most common sources of ocean pollution is “urban slobber”—contaminants, fecal matter and bacteria that wash off city streets and make their way to the ocean. The other is sewage.

Sewage systems that overflow during rainfall and that carry raw sewage in the same pipes as rainwater (a common design in the Eastern United States and around the Great Lakes) contribute to this problem. Pipes that carry both raw sewage and stormwater transport their content to treatment plants on dry days, but when there is stormwater that fills the pipes, the system is designed to let the mixture of rainwater and sewage overflow at designated points, dumping the nasty mess into bodies of water.

Climate change is only going to make ocean pollution worse, by increasing the frequency and intensity of rainstorms, which could lead to more frequent sewer overflows and stormwater pollution. Rising temperatures are also expected to mean an increase in pathogen populations—meaning that as global temperatures rise, there will be more bacteria in the water.

Under current EPA standards, acceptable levels of ocean pollution would still make 36 out of every 1,000 swimmers ill with some sort of gastroenteritis. But most people don’t associate a stomach flu with a dip in the ocean several days earlier, making it difficult to measure how many Americans contract illness from polluted waters. “A lot of people don’t even think about the fact that the water they swim in might be polluted,” Devine explains. 

To help alert people to these hazards, for the past 24 years, NRDC has compiled an annual report about beach water pollution. This year, the group looked at 116,230 samples at 3,485 beaches and beach segments. These samples come from beach officials, which the EPA gathers and records in a central database. 

Want to see how your favorite beach stacks up? NRDC has teamed up with Newsweek to create a handy, searchable map, to help you figure out if beaches in your area are contaminated or safe. Check before heading out—your favorite beach might be contaminated, but another beach only a few miles away might be perfectly safe. NRDC also has a fully mapped version of the report on their website.