Before you head to the beach this summer, you might want to double-check the water conditions. Many of the country’s idyllic beaches conceal a filthy secret below the sand and waves: dangerous levels of bacteria that put thousands of people at risk every year.
In a recently published study conducted by the Environment America Research and Policy Center, researchers found that the water at beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states contained concentrations of bacteria well in excess of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards – including the harmful organisms that inhabit human feces – which they said could sicken millions of beachgoers annually.
“It’s hard to believe that 47 years after we passed the Clean Water Act that we are still concerned with poop in the water when people want to go swimming,” John Rumpler, clean water program director for the center, told USA Today.
Last year, nearly 60% of 4,523 beaches tested across the United States demonstrated unsafe water pollution levels on at least one day, according to a report released Tuesday by the nonprofits Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group.
These 2,620 beaches had bacteria levels that exceeded the US Environmental Protection Agency’s “Beach Action Value” threshold, which it recommends states use to provide an early alert to beach-goers who may be particularly sensitive to contaminants.
Bacteria levels can spike to dangerous levels on certain days, such as when rain washes waste from the streets into creeks or streams, which flow into larger bodies of water. Some areas fare much worse than others, however.
In Chicago, all of the 19 beaches sampled were considered unsafe for at least one day in 2018, while the city’s South Shore Beach registered contamination in 93 of the 98 samples collected. California’s Cabrillo Beach also came in high on the list, considered unsafe in 85 out of 175 samples in one section.
On the cleaner end of the spectrum, Georgia’s Jekyll Driftwood Beach provided only 2 contaminated samples out of 46, and Florida’s Bird Key Park resulted in 17 dirty samples out of 67, suggesting that even the tidier beaches can be risky on some days.
The number of reported recreational water illnesses has steadily increased over the past few decades, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. About 90 million illnesses occur from water recreation events annually, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Health.
“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,” John Rumpler, director of Environment America’s Clean Water Program, said in a news release. “We must invest in water infrastructure that prevents pollution to ensure that America’s waterways are safe for swimming.”
Staying safe at the beach
“When it gets hot, it gets easy for bacteria to grow in the ocean,” said Dr. Alison Huffstetler, a physician at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.
However, most bacteria dissipate quickly, she said.
“There has to be a lot of contamination to have a real impact on people going to the beach,” she said. “There’s absolutely bacteria in the water every time you get in.”
Huffstetler recommends taking general precautions like washing hands and feet after getting out of the water and avoiding swallowing ocean water.
The EPA also suggests that beachgoers avoid swimming at beaches where they can see discharge pipes or at urban beaches after a heavy rainfall.
Cover photo: Thomas Bender/Gatehouse File