If the Beach is Open, It's Safe for Swimming
Myth: While health and environmental agencies from the Environmental Protection Agency down to the local health department have a role in testing water quality at public beaches, watchdogs say the tests aren't always frequent enough, and the standards aren't always set high enough, to inspire 100% confidence. In 1972, with the passage of the Clean Water Act, Congress set the goal of making all U.S. water safe for swimming by 1983, and while water is much cleaner today than a generation ago, contamination, particularly from sewer overflows after heavy rainstorms, remains a problem. The EPA reports that 95% of beaches were safe and open for swimming in 2011. But the Natural Resources Defense Council tallied more than 23,481 beach closings and swimming advisories due to pollution. What's more, Riverkeeper, NRDC and other watchdogs have criticized recent proposed changes to federal safe swimming guidelines that would weaken standards for protecting public health.
What You Can Do:
> Before swimming, ask officials about water quality testing at your local beach. You'll want to swim where the water usually tests clean, where the water is tested frequently and where officials close the beach whenever contamination is present. Search 200 of the most popular U.S. swimming spots with NRDC's Testing the Waters chart. Seek out local data where available to inform your decision; Riverkeeper, for instance, provides extensive water quality data on the Hudson River.
> Avoid swimming for at least 24-48 hours after heavy rains, which are known to wash harmful bacteria from land and sewers into water.
> Don't swim near obvious sources of pollution, like discharge pipes, or where garbage accumulates.
> Do your part by properly disposing of pet waste and human waste on boats.
> Support efforts to upgrade sewage systems to minimize "combined sewage overflows" that result when sewers are inundated with rain water.