Understanding the Safety of Your Local Beach

Key Takeaways:

  • Water pollution at beaches is a significant issue, with more than 20,000 instances of beach closures and advisories issued across the United States due to high levels of bacteria.
  • Raw sewage from polluted beach water is estimated to cause illness in around 3.5 million people per year, with affected individuals experiencing symptoms ranging from gastroenteritis and skin rashes to more severe health problems like respiratory ailments and neurological disorders.
  • To ensure personal safety, individuals are advised to swim only at monitored beaches where polluted water leads to closures or advisories, avoid water if warnings or closures are in effect, and refrain from swimming in visibly polluted areas, especially after heavy rain.
  • The quality of beach water can be improved by upgrading green infrastructure, including the use of stormwater management methods, and pushing for more rigorous EPA standards for evaluating beach water quality.

In the warmth of summer, a day at the beach sounds like a perfect getaway. However, the potential health risks might be greater than you imagine.

Swimming Safety Risks Explored

A comprehensive analysis of roughly 3,000 beaches in the United States suggests that beach-goers face dangers that extend beyond jovial water sports and suntanning. The hidden culprit – water pollution, potentially exposing swimmers to a cocktail of bacterial and viral illnesses.

The ‘quiet’ danger of beach water pollution is often underestimated, warns Steve Fleischli, head of a prominent environmental program. Their annual report revealed disconcerting facts about beach safety.

Concerning Statistics on Beach Closures and Advisories

Despite the slightly reduced number of beach closures and polluted water advisories from the prior year, the figures remain disconcertingly high. More than 20,000 instances of beach closures and warnings were recorded across the country. Extended durations of closure, with 59 events lasting over six weeks, and 38 continuing throughout a complete season, alarmingly ring warning bells about the prevalent water pollution issue.

The primary cause of this reduction is attributed to a substantially less rainy beach season across America and Hawaii. Heavy rain tends to overwhelm sewage treatment plants, triggering more closure advisories due to a greater risk of raw sewage leakages into the beach water.

Fleischli raises the urgency flag on this beach pollution problem, stating, “Too many beaches are sick.”

Beach Water Quality Continues to be a Major Issue

The primary reason for issuing advisories and closing beaches is the high bacteria levels that surpass safe limits set for beach water. The excessive bacteria strongly suggests the presence of human or animal waste, posing serious health risks.

A troubling statistic reveals that 7% of beach water samples were non-compliant with public health standards, explains Jon Devine, a water law expert. The Great Lakes region showed the highest contamination rate while Delaware was at the lower end of the spectrum.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that raw sewage in beach water might be leading to illness in approximately 3.5 million people per annum. Some experts claim that the actual number could be significantly larger. People often fail to associate beach-day gastroenteritis or other illnesses with polluted beach water, resulting in underreported cases.

Another common health issue is skin rashes, with beach water pollution sometimes causing more severe health problems such as respiratory ailments, pinkeye, and neurological disorders.

Recognizing the Best and Worst Beaches

Thirteen leading beaches received five-star ratings by focusing on enhanced beach water quality, regular monitoring, and timely public notifications regarding contamination. These include Hampton Beach State Park in New Hampshire and San Clemente State Beach in California.

In contrast, the list for poorly maintained beaches includes Ontario Beach in New York and Avalon Beach on Catalina Island in California. The risks are typically confined to certain areas in larger beaches.

Improving Beach Water Quality

Two essential steps are proposed by Fleischli for improving the health of our beaches. Firstly, upgrade the green infrastructure for cleaner water including the use of stormwater management methods like green roofs, porous pavements, rain barrels, and swales. Secondly, urge the EPA to enhance their standards for evaluating beach water quality. He criticizes the relaxed EPA guidelines that, in theory, can tolerate one in 28 beach-goers falling sick even at supposedly safe beaches.

Protecting Yourself

Here are some simple steps individuals can adopt to avoid getting sick, such as:

  • Swim only at monitored beaches where polluted water leads to closures or advisories.
  • Avoid beach water if there are warnings or closures.
  • Do not swim at beaches with visible pollution sources, especially after heavy rain.
  • Avoid immersing your head and do not swim with open wounds or infections.

To further protect yourself, Devine suggests checking water testing data on the local public health department’s website prior to visiting a beach. He adds, “use common sense. If the water is murky or smells bad, stay out.”

Want to know more?

For the safety of your favorite beach, visit NRDC’s website.


Greetings from the trails and tracks! I'm Tim, but most folks know me as TJ. I've spent the last 5 years diving deep into the world of content writing, with a particular penchant for nutrition and the intricate science behind it. Every bite we take, every nutrient we consume, tells a unique story – and I'm here to unravel it for you.Beyond my keyboard, you'll often find me on a winding hiking trail or pushing my limits on a long-distance run. These pursuits not only keep me fit but constantly remind me of the vital role nutrition plays in fueling our passions and adventures.Through my writings, I aim to bridge the gap between complex nutritional science and everyday eating habits. Whether you're looking for the latest research updates, practical diet tips, or stories from the running track, I'm committed to serving you content that's as engaging as it is enlightening.So, lace up your shoes, grab a healthy snack, and join me in this exploration of food, science, and the great outdoors. Together, we'll journey towards better health and incredible experiences!
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