Pollution-related closings and health advisories at U.S. beaches

Pollution-related closings and health advisories at U.S. beaches were more numerous than ever in 2005, according to NRDC's annual report (PDF 1.8mb) on beachwater quality.

Across the country, there were more than 20,000 days of closings and advisories in 2005 at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches -- an increase of 5 percent from 2004. NRDC expects the upward trend to continue.

Why the jump in "no swimming" days? Much of the rise was due to heavy rainfall, increased monitoring, more development in coastal areas and unaddressed sources of beachwater pollution.

For the first time, NRDC was able to determine not only the number of closings and advisories, but also the number of times that each beach violated current public health standards. NRDC found 200 designated swimming beaches that violated public health standards at least 25 percent of the time. Those violations are pretty good indications that the beachwater was contaminated with human and animal waste, and that beachgoers were either swimming in that waste or banned from doing so due to the health risks.

Even beaches that meet standards are not necessarily safe. The current beachwater quality standards are 20 years old and rely on obsolete monitoring methods and out-of-date science that leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses. The BEACH Act, which Congress passed in 2000, required the EPA to revise the current standards by October 2005. The agency missed the deadline, and now says it will not be able to finish updating them until 2011. On August 3, 2006, NRDC sued the agency to force it to establish new standards.

This year's report highlights another disturbing trend: Most municipalities have failed to identify and control sources of bacteria and other pollution tainting water near beaches. In 2005, 75 percent of closing and advisory days stemmed from monitoring that revealed high levels of bacteria associated with fecal contamination. Typically, bacteria come from sewage discharges or runoff from urban streets. Yet 14,602 closing and advisory days -- or 63 percent of the 2005 total -- were attributed to unknown sources, the second highest number of days attributed to "unknown sources" since NRDC began tracking beachwater quality 16 years ago.

Improved Monitoring in Many Coastal Areas

Since 1991, NRDC's annual watchdog report, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," has sparked several improvements in beachwater monitoring. For instance, it helped spur enactment of the federal BEACH Act of 2000, which provided grants to state and local governments to set up beachwater monitoring programs. Moreover, public attention generated by NRDC's report and list of "beach bums" and "beach buddies" has prompted several states and local beaches to adopt better practices. Thirteen states initiated or expanded monitoring programs between the time NRDC began the report in 1991 and the passage of the BEACH Act. And three states, California, Florida and Massachusetts, have passed laws calling for regular beach monitoring and improved health standards. As a result of federal grants now available to states through the BEACH Act, virtually every coastal and Great Lakes state has a monitoring and public notification program.

Bush Administration Rolling Back Beach Protections

Even as more states monitor their beaches, coastal water quality faces a persistent threat: the Bush administration's rollback of programs that keep U.S. beachwater clean and safe for swimming. Since taking office in 2001, the administration has declined to protect many wetlands and headwaters that filter beachwater sources, allowed contaminated stormwater from new development to pollute rivers, slashed federal funding for clean water programs, and held up rules that would reduce overflows of raw sewage. Sewage poses a major threat to beachwater quality. But for more than four years, the Bush administration has shelved rules that would reduce raw sewage discharges and require sewer system operators to detect overflows before beachwater quality is affected.

Keeping Water Safe by Cleaning Up Pollution

While controls on all sources of beachwater pollution should be tightened -- especially on sources of human and animal waste -- individuals also can help clean up beach pollution. Simple measures that reduce the amount of pollution reaching coastal waters include: redirecting runoff from roofs and driveways to lawns and gardens, using natural fertilizers such as compost for gardens, maintaining septic systems and properly disposing of household toxics, used motor oil and boating wastes.

Beach Buddies and Beach Bums

Each year, NRDC spotlights a list of "beach bums" and "beach buddies." For the 2005 beach season, NRDC spotlights beach bums that violated public health standards at least 50 percent of the time. Beach buddies were monitored at least once a week during the swim season, had no monitoring samples that violated standards at any time, and took extra steps to identify or reduce beach pollution over the past year. Examples include using GIS-based maps to identify pollution sources, developing computer models to predict in advance when beachwaters are likely to be unsafe, or using vegetative buffers or restored wetlands to reduce runoff from dirty, urban streets.

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