U.S. Beaches Still Unsafe, NRDC Report Says

The water at American beaches was unsafe for swimming last year with the second-highest number of beach closing and advisory days ever, according to the 18th annual beach water quality report released recently by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the report, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," shows the number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches was more than 20,000 for the third consecutive year, confirming that U.S. beaches continue to suffer from serious water pollution that puts swimmers at risk. For the full report, go to http://www.nrdc.org/beaches.

"Some families can't enjoy their local beaches because they are polluted and kids are getting sick – largely because of human and animal waste in the water," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's clean water project.

"Testing the Waters" shows that the number of closing and advisory days due to sewage spills and overflows more than tripled to 4,097 from 2006 to 2007, but the largest known source of pollution continues to be contamination from stormwater, which caused more than 10,000 closing and advisory days. Stormwater carries pollution from the streets to the beach without treatment whenever it rains. Unknown sources of pollution caused more than 8,000 closing and advisory days.

Nationally, seven percent of beachwater samples violated health standards, showing no improvement from 2006. In the Great Lakes, 15 percent of beachwater samples violated those standards – the highest level of contamination of any coastal region in the continental United States.

For the first time this year, the report gives a five-star rating guide for a selection of the most popular beaches in the nation. The star rating criteria is based on indicators of beachwater quality, monitoring frequency, and use of health standards to protect beachgoers.

While nationally there was an overall decrease in closing and advisory days from 2006, regionally the picture varied. The biggest increase in closing and advisory days (38 percent) was in the Gulf Coast region, partly because beaches in Louisiana and Mississippi were reopened and monitored for the first full beach season there since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005. Beaches along the New York/New Jersey coast had the second-highest increase (33 percent) and those at Great Lakes beaches were up 1 percent.

The biggest drop in closing and advisory days was a 36 percent reduction in Hawaii, which had an abnormal rainfall year in 2006. Closing and advisory days were down in the rest of the country only 4 percent between 2006 and 2007.

Not only are the beaches polluted, the way they are tested is also failing the American public, according to NRDC public health and water experts. Beach water quality standards are more than 20 years old and rely on outdated science and monitoring methods that leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

"What this report means for families heading to the beach is they need to be careful and do a little homework," said Stoner. "Call your local public health authority and ask them if the beachwater is safe for swimming. If there is any doubt, or if the water smells bad or looks dirty, stay out of it."

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