The NRDC's 2012 annual report on the water quality of beaches around the US is an incredibly useful resource, both for vacationers looking for a good spot to relax, and for policymakers who should use the information as a tool to improve things. This year's report finds that during the past year, the number of beach closing and advisory days reached the third-highest level in the 22-year history of the report, totaling 23,481 days (over all the beaches surveyed, obviously, as there is only 365 days in the year...).
More than two-thirds of closings and advisories were issued because bacteria levels in beachwater exceeded public health standards, indicating the presence of human or animal waste in the water. The portion of all monitoring samples that exceeded national recommended health standards for designated beach areas remained stable at 8% in 2011, compared with 8% in 2010 and 7% for the four previous years. In addition, the number of beaches monitored in 2011 increased slightly (2%) from a five-year low in 2010. The largest known source of pollution was stormwater runoff (47%, compared with 36% last year). The 2011 results confirm that our nation's beaches continue to experience significant water pollution that puts swimmers and local economies at risk.
But what's the risk of a dirty beach, you ask?
"Exposure to bacteria, viruses and parasites in contaminated beachwater can cause a wide range of diseases, including ear, nose and eye infections, stomach flu, hepatitis, encephalitis, skin rashes, and respiratory illnesses. Most waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States occur during the summer, when Americans are most likely to be exposed to contaminated beachwater. [...] Small children, elderly people, pregnant women, cancer patients and others with weakened immune systems are most likely to get sick from swimming in contaminated beachwater. They also are the most likely to be hospitalized or die from exposure to waterborne illnesses. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children under the age of 9 had more reports of diarrhea and vomiting from exposure to waterborne parasites than any other age group."
So please be careful and inform yourself before jumping in the water. Better safe than sorry.
If you happen to be a policymaker, check out the policy solutions proposed by the NRDC. We can improve things.