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Before You Swim This Summer, You Should Know What Is Lurking at Your Beach

With the summer months upon us, many have their sights set on packing up the family and heading out for a day at the beach. When you get there, however, it can no longer be taken for granted that the water and the beach itself will be safe to enjoy.

Help keep the world's beaches clean: Join the International Coastal Cleanup on September 16, 2006.

In 2004 (the latest year for which complete statistics were available), there were nearly 20,000 closings and swimming advisory days at the nation's oceans, bays and Great Lakes beaches, all because of pollution, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). If this number sounds like a lot, it is.

This was the highest number of closings and advisories since the NRDC began tracking beach pollution 15 years ago. It also represents a nearly 10 percent increase from the closings and advisories in 2003.

What's Causing All of This Beach Pollution?

According to NRDC, 73 percent of the 2004 beach closings occurred because the presence of bacteria associated with fecal contamination was found in the water, though the source of the contamination was unknown. Typically, if a beach is closed it's because monitoring systems discovered high numbers of bacteria or other infectious organisms in the water.

When sources for closings were identified, the most common was dirty runoff water and stormwater, followed by sewage spills and overflows. According to the NRDC, heavy rains are often problematic, as they force rainwater and raw sewage directly into coastal waters, without stopping at a treatment plant. As the rainwater travels, it also picks up pollutants from the land, further contributing to the problem.

What Happens if You Swim in Polluted Water?

Water-borne diseases from recreational waters are increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so it's best to stay clear of the water if a beach has been closed or has issued a swimming advisory. While most illnesses you could pick up are not life threatening and cause acute symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting, exposure to certain bacteria can be more serious.

E. coli, for instance, can produce a serious infection that causes bloody diarrhea and sometimes kidney failure. And any illness or infection can be dangerous for someone with a compromised immune system, the elderly and young children.

You may also want to steer clear of storm drains, even if the water is otherwise fine. According to the NRDC, a study of Santa Monica Bay in California found that swimmers who swam near storm drains and went underwater had an increased risk of illness and symptoms including fever, chills, ear discharge, nausea, respiratory illnesses and diarrhea.

Garbage Litters Coastlines Worldwide

Aside from the potentially polluted water, garbage is now a common site at beaches and shorelines all over the world.

The problem is so pervasive that in 2004 the Ocean Conservancy's Annual International Coastal Cleanup removed over 7.6 million pounds of garbage from the ocean in 88 countries, including nearly 1.3 million cigarette butts.

What kind of garbage is washing up on shorelines? Here's an example of the top 10 debris items found on shorelines in New Hampshire:

  1. Cigarettes/cigarette filters
  2. Bags/food wrappers
  3. Caps, lids
  4. Beverage cans
  5. Rope
  6. Plastic cups, plates, forks, knives or spoons
  7. Glass bottles
  8. Straws or stirrers
  9. Cigar tips
  10. Plastic beverage bottles.

Other items include fishing line and nets, six-pack rings, diapers, tires, tampon applicators and syringes. Marine debris such as this is not just an eyesore, it can be dangerous.

People can step on broken glass or metal while walking on the sand, or be exposed to infectious agents from diapers and syringes. Marine animals and seabirds can become entangled in fishing line or ingest plastic debris. Sea turtles, for instance, often mistake plastic bags in the water for jellyfish. Once the turtle eats the bag, it feels full when it really isn't and will slowly starve to death.

Find out whether your favorite beach has any closings or advisories using the EPA's BEACON.

How Thorough is Beach Monitoring?

Because nearly every beach in the United States could potentially contain pollutants, every beach should be monitored for possible health risks. However, this is not the case.

On the better end of the monitoring spectrum are seventeen states (Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin), along with Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which monitor more than half of their beaches at least once a week, according to the NRDC.

Other states monitor even less frequently. Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Puerto Rico and South Carolina regularly monitor most of their beaches but less than once a week.

Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington regularly monitor less than half of their beaches.

Currently, the NRDC has threatened to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not updating health standards for coastal recreational waters, as called for under the Beaches Environmental Assessment, Cleanup and Health (BEACH) Act of 2000.

As required by this Act, the EPA was going to complete studies within three years to assess health risks and develop better methods of detecting pollution in recreational waters.

The Act also required the EPA to publish revised water-quality standards by October 2005. However, the EPA does not have plans to publish such information until 2011.

You Can Enjoy Beaches Safely This Summer

Many U.S. beaches are clean and safe to swim at and enjoy right now. You can use the U.S. EPA's BEACON (Beach Advisory and Closing Online Notification) to find out whether your favorite beach has any advisories or closings.

Meanwhile, you can do your part to keep beaches clean by not littering and lending a hand at the annual International Coastal Cleanup. This year's event will be September 16, 2006, so mark your calendar and visit the International Coastal Cleanup to register.

Recommended Reading

International Coastal Cleanup

National Resources Defense Council

The New Standard May 31, 2006

Marine Debris: A Visible Threat to Our Waterways and Shorelines

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