RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It's that time of year when families start piling into the car Griswold-style, hitting the road on a…quest for fun! If your family's journey is to the beach, take a break from your packing and check out the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC's) annual "Testing the Waters" report, released today, enumerating the good and the bad at our nation's beaches.
THE DETAILS: Now in its 21st year, "Testing the Waters" is an annual look at water-quality tests and public notifications of beach closures at more than 3,000 beaches in the U.S. Not required by federal law, beach water-quality tests are legislated by state and local governments, with requirements ranging from daily to semiweekly to weekly tests, and some states requiring no testing at all. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does, however, set health standards that shouldn't be exceeded if city, county, and state governments want to prevent people from getting sick. Those standards are designed to limit the presence of microorganisms in the water that can trigger health problems ranging from minor stomach upset to skin rashes to even pink eye and dysentery. NRDC's scientists use city and state data from these tests to see which beaches experience the most closures or swimming advisories due to pollution.
This year's report reveals that America's beaches are not so healthy. "Beach closings spiked to their second highest level in 21 years, a 29 percent increase from the previous year's report," says Jon Devine, senior water attorney, referring to figures from 2010. Part of that had to do with the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last April, but even that event accounted for just 7 percent of beach closings. Seventy percent of closings were attributed to bacterial contamination, caused primarily by heavy rainfalls that wash untreated water into storm drains. Those drains empty directly into oceans, or cause overflow at sewage treatment facilities that then washes bacteria-laden water into the oceans. Other sources of bacterial contamination are wildlife, beachgoers themselves, poorly maintained septic systems located close to a beach, agricultural runoff that promotes the growth of toxin-rich algal blooms, and boaters who dump their sewage into the water.
Another 21 percent of closings were preemptive; city and county officials knew heavy rains would cause such problems and so closed beaches before any water was tested (it can take up to 24 hours for the results of a water-quality test to alert officials to bacterial contamination, and by that point, swimmers have already been exposed).