Summer's heating up and beaches are packed. But before you take the plunge, it's a good idea to check health and safety advisories, particularly after heavy rains, since swimming or surfing in contaminated waters can result in skin, eye, ear, throat and respiratory infections, rashes, diarrhea, stomach flu and gastroentiritis. Not to mention nervous breakdowns from ruined vacations. Unfortunately, health and safety warnings about pathogenic bacteria and viruses are not always posted in timely fashion, if at all. How to swim in self-defense? You can start by checking NRDC's new rating guide to 200 of the nation's most popular beaches.
The chart, which rates beaches in 26 states, appears in NRDC's 2009 "Testing the Waters" report, released last week. It covers the U.S. West, East and Gulf coasts and the Great Lakes. NRDC's ratings are based on water quality, frequency of monitoring and how quickly and effectively the public is notified about contamination that may cause waterborne illness. If your beach isn't on the list, you may still find useful information about a beach nearby.
And there's lots more to learn, including the scope and sources of beach sickness and what you can do about it, apart from the highly unsatisfactory option of just staying away from the shore. In 2008, there were 20,000 beach closing and advisory days nationwide. The main culprit, in two-thirds of these cases, was stormwater runoff after heavy rains, which can carry oil, detergents, pesticides, fertilizers, trash, pet feces, human sewage and farm animal waste into storm drains, streams and canals that empty into the sea.
NRDC also found that, for the fourth year in a row, 7% of beaches nationwide violated federal health standards. That might not seem so dire, were it not that most of these beaches are near urban areas and thus get the most visitors. And that's just the beaches that were monitored. Some aren't. All in all, NRDC concluded, "Swimmers continue to be at an unnecessarily elevated risk due to the limited scope of recreational water standards."
The most polluted and unmonitored beaches include Zack's Bay at Jones Beach, New York; Ocean Beach in New London, Connecticut; Venice Public Beach in Florida; and Central Beach in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. The more developed the coastline, it seems, the more likely you'll encounter pollution. For example, in a recent survey, surfers in urban North Orange County, in Southern California, reported almost twice as many illness symptoms as did their counterparts in rural Santa Cruz County, Northern California.
The cleanest and best monitored beaches, which were awarded five out of five possible stars, included Gulf Shores Public Beach, Alabama; Laguna Beach-Main Beach, Bolsa Chica State Beach, and Newport Beach, California; Ocean City, Maryland; Park Point - Community Club Beach, Minnesota; and Hampton Beach State Park, New Hampshire.
Choosing a five-star beach, however, won't necessarily insulate you from risk.
For example, a bodysurfer pal who spent two days in the crystal-clear waters of Crescent Bay in Laguna Beach, California reports he contracted a sore throat, nausea and fever. He says he suspects it's linked to the crowds of bathers with which he found himself surrounded during the heat wave. After all, a recent survey of swimmers by the Water Quality and Health Council found that nearly one out of five admits to peeing in the pool. While the ocean is infinitely bigger and more open, bathers do cluster in designated bathing areas, and surfers crowd waves far removed from public restrooms, and the rest we'll leave to your imagination. Although Crescent Bay scored five stars and is tested for illness-bearing pathogens twice a week, more than twice that many days per week go untested.
The main takeaway lesson from "Testing the Waters" is that, until we stop pollution at its source, any swimmer can be taken by unpleasant surprise, even at beaches that are normally top-rated. Also worth noting: For the first time in this series of annual reports, the effects of climate change on beach water quality are examined, and, as one might expect, it doesn't look good. Higher air and water temperatures, and more frequent and intense climate events such as heavy rains and floods, are anticipated to wash increased stormwater runoff and parasites and pathogens into waterways, as well as stimulate algal blooms and red tides, which can cause dermatitis, red eyes, asthma and sore throats. Other illnesses that can be waterborne include dysentery, campylobacter, salmonella, shigella, meningitis, hepatitis and coxsackie virus. Shellfish poisonings are also tied to higher water temperatures.
How to stop pollution at its source?
*Check out NRDC's simple tips for conserving water and preventing runoff from your yard and driveway. (Clue: Use soil-building compost, not synthetic nitrogen fertilizer that provokes algal blooms; don't hose down or water your car on pavement but on permeable, absorptive surfaces like gravel; prevent soil erosion with groundcover plants.)
*Chemical spills are bad enough, but many toxic chemicals aren't removed by sewage treatment plants, and some are actually worn by swimmers. You can easily help keep endocrine-disrupting synthetic sunblock chemicals out of the ocean, where they've been found to harm coral reefs and are linked to sex changes in fish! Use these natural sunblocks, which are better for your health, too. And, when surfing, snorkelling or swimming, you can wear long-sleeve UV-blocking rash guards, which protect backs, arms and shoulders and don't wash off into the water.
*Don't litter. Recycle and reuse to keep plastics out of the sea and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Dispose of pet waste in the trash.
*Follow tips from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy to help reduce global warming emissions of carbon dioxide by reducing the fossil fuels burned to transport you and power your home. Eat less meat and dairy products from cows, goats and sheep, whose belches release methane, a global warming gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Quick Self-Defense Tips from NRDC and EPA:
*Check local advisories before swimming or surfing, but don't bet your health on them.
*Don't swim for 24 hours in a highly populated or agricultural area after a rainstorm. Then, check local media or health departments for advisories. Current water quality tests don't give results for 24 hours.
*If there are crowds, the water may be dirty. Use your common sense and, if you must go in, keep your mouth closed!
*Think twice before entering water in rivermouths (sharks patrol these, too!) and other areas where canals, creeks and lagoon/estuaries open into the sea.
*Try not to swim near sewer outlets or stormwater release pipes.
*Swim at beaches that are next to natural rather than urban areas. That's why Bolsa Chica, a long beach fronting a natural wetland, is rated higher than adjacent Huntington Beach, which fronts a town.
*Avoid swimming in enclosed bays and harbors with little water circulation.
*Stay out of water that is brown, murky (sharks like this, too!) or smells bad.
*Contact local health officials if you suspect beachwater contamination so that others can be protected from exposure. Also file a report with the Surfrider foundation if you become ill. Find health and environmental agencies by searching city and state Websites or pages in your phone book.
*Algal blooms, agricultural runoff and chemical and sewage spills can also cause pollution in seafood. So especially when traveling, check before eating local fish. Search for fish advisories in the state where you live or are visiting on EPA's Website.
For more information
*See the full NRDC report here. *Search for your beach on EPA's beachwatch site. *For human and environmental health impacts at your beach, including pollution and erosion, search by state at Surfrider Foundation's State of the Beach Website.
*For a surf pollution blog and comments on "Testing the Waters," click here.
Mindy Pennybacker is an author and environmental writer who co-founded The Green Guide and has written for numerous publications. She blogs at Greener Penny.
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