Before you hit the beach this Fourth of July, you should know that there’s something in the water—literally. Beaches across the U.S. had more than 20,000 closing and advisory days in 2012 due to water pollution or contamination threats, according to the 23rd annual beach water quality report just released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). As if that weren’t disturbing enough, more than 80 percent of the closings and advisories occurred because testing revealed unsafe bacteria levels in the water.
The NRDC also found that 7 percent of the water quality samples taken by beaches last year failed to meet the federal public health standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is consistent with the percentage of samples that contained too much pollution to meet these standards in the last few years, says NRDC senior water attorney Jon Devine, who helped supervise the production of the report.
What’s making beach water so gross
While most beach managers say they aren’t sure what’s going on when water samples come back with high levels of pollution, storm water is the biggest known source of contamination, says Devine. Here’s why: When there’s a big storm, not all of the rainfall seeps into the ground or evaporates back into the air—so the excess runs off until it ends up in storm water drainage pipes that empty into streams and rivers, which eventually feed into oceans. Since storm water usually isn’t treated before it ends up in the ocean and it can become contaminated by anything in its path—think cigarette butts, oil and grease, pet or wildlife waste, and other icky stuff—harmful bacteria are more likely to end up in the ocean in the day or two following storms. What’s more, since storm water pipes and sewage pipes are often really close to each other underground, storm water can become contaminated by sewage via leaks and carry human waste out to the ocean. Yuck!
How ocean water makes you sick
When beach water becomes contaminated with bacteria, it can enter your system via your mouth (if you swallow it accidentally) or an open wound (if it’s not covered and protected, which is pretty difficult underwater). This bacteria can cause a range of water-borne illnesses—anything from stomach flu and pink eye to dysentery or hepatitis. “It can range from the annoying to the very serious,” says Devine. What’s more, many of the people who get sick won’t even realize it was from being exposed to contaminated beach water a few days earlier.
Is your beach safe?
In many cases, if there’s been a violation of the EPA’s safe to swim standard, local public health officials will post notices on their website and at the beach. “If you see a sign, you should heed it,” says Devine. But here’s the scary thing: Paying attention to these notices and alerts won’t necessarily protect you from jumping into tainted water. “Sometimes states or local beach officials will not automatically post a warning if they’ve had a violation,” says Devine. “They instead will resample to confirm that the water is contaminated above the standard, and so in that circumstance, it might be that there’s not a warning even though they’ve monitored high levels.” You can stay on top of your beach water’s status by checking here.
So should you avoid the beach?
When water is right at the pollution level allowed by the EPA’s safe to swim standards, the risk of getting a gastrointestinal illness from swimming is 1 in 28. That means that when water is below the limit, your chances of getting a water-borne sickness are pretty low—and it’s probably safe to go for a swim. However, because children, elderly people, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems are more likely to get water-borne illnesses—and will probably be hit harder by them if they do get sick—these people should be cautious about entering the water even when it meets the safe to swim standard. That said, everyone should avoid getting into the water at least 24 hours after it rains—and at least 72 hours after it rains heavily.
Whenever possible, go to beaches that are next to open waters or removed from urban areas since they’re usually less contaminated. You should also avoid swimming near pipes or in water that looks or smells weird in any way. And when you are in the ocean, keep your head above water to decrease your odds of swallowing anything gross by mistake.