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Heading to the Beach? Beware the Fecal Bacteria

A new report found that more than 2,600 sites in the U.S. and Puerto Rico were “potentially unsafe” for at least one day in 2018

Well, that stinks. (EHStock / iStock)
smithsonian.com

Ah, summer. It’s a time for heading to the beach, wriggling your tootsies in the sand and cooling down in the waves. It's relaxing just to think about. A less serene visual, however: the water you're swimming in might be contaminated with dangerous levels of fecal bacteria, according to a new assessment of 4,523 beaches in the United States and Puerto Rico.

The report, which was produced by Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group, is based on data from the National Water Quality Monitoring Council’s Water Quality Portal, where federal, state and tribal organizations can submit sampling information.

Researchers looked at data from 29 coastal and Great Lakes states, as well as Puerto Rico. They deemed beach sites “potentially unsafe” if their bacteria levels exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Beach Action Value” threshold, at which point the EPA encourages beaches to issue an early alert about the contaminants.

The results of the team’s investigation were not entirely reassuring. Of the 4,523 beach sites tested, 2,620—more than half—were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day in 2018, and 605 were potentially unsafe on 25 percent of the days that sampling took place. Every part of the country was afflicted by contaminated waters to varying degrees. Eighty-five percent of Gulf Coast sites, for instance, were potentially hazardous on at least one day of 2018. That number shrunk to 45 percent for East Coast beaches.

“Swimming at the beach is a prime summertime joy for millions of Americans, but clearly we have more work to do to make sure water at all our beaches is safe,” says John Rumpler, report co-author and director of Environment America’s Clean Water Program.

According to the report, the major contaminants of the nation’s beaches are poop, poop and more poop. There are, unfortunately, many ways that unsafe amounts of fecal bacteria can make their way to beaches and lakes. Rains wash fecal waste from pets and wildlife into bodies of water, either directly or via storm drains; the problem is particularly bad in urban areas, because paved surfaces don’t absorb the dirty water. Leaking or overflowing sewage systems also contaminate waterways, as does runoff from industrial-scale livestock operations. Flooding and extreme weather can facilitate the spread of all this squalid material, and so it is possible that the problem will only get worse as climate change increases the likelihood of such weather events.

“If you look at those of the predominant causes of fecal bacteria and water sewage overflows and run-off pollution, those factors are tending to be more ominous year by year,” Rumpler tells Miranda Bryant of the Guardian.

Swimming in poop-contaminated waters can lead to serious illnesses, among them ear and eye infections, respiratory diseases and gastrointestinal illnesses. Beaches will often issue advisories to protect swimmers when bacteria levels get too high, but according to the report, “many testing programs rely on a testing process that requires nearly 24 hours to show results, meaning that swimmers have already been exposed to unsafe water by the time advisories are posted.” A study published last year in Environmental Health estimated that water-based recreational activities lead to 90 million illnesses across the nation each year.

Speaking to Bryant, an EPA spokesperson noted that its own recent report, which summarized beach closings and advisories in 2018, found that “America’s beaches are open and safe for recreation the vast majority of the time.” But while the occasional beach closure in your area may not seem like a terribly big deal, the authors of the report say that steps can—and should—be taken to make our waters cleaner and safer.

Among the report’s recommendations are allocating funds to fix old sewage systems, cracking down on industrial livestock operations to ensure that their waste is managed properly and restoring natural infrastructure, like wetlands, that filter bacteria, sediment and nutrients. In a similar vein, the report calls on officials to increase public investment in “green infrastructure”—like rain barrels, permeable pavement, green roofs and other urban green spaces, all of which can absorb storm runoff. In May of this year, in fact, U.S. Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell introduced a bill to Congress that calls for further investment in “environmentally-friendly water infrastructure.”

"It's no longer enough to warn swimmers when beaches may be unsafe,” says Gideon Weissman, study co-author and policy analyst with Frontier Group, “especially when there are steps we can take today to reduce the threat of bacterial contamination in our waterways."

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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