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New report finds contaminated water at thousands of U.S. beaches

  • New report finds contaminated water at thousands of U.S. beaches

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Environment America
Environment America Research & Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization. We are dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers.

With summer in full swing, beachgoers should beware: It might not be safe to go in the water. Nearly 60 percent of 4,523 beaches tested in the United States had water pollution levels that put swimmers at risk of getting sick on at least one occasion last year, according to a new report by Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group. The study, Safe for Swimming?, looked at fecal bacteria levels at beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states as well as Puerto Rico.

“Swimming at the beach is a prime summertime joy for millions of Americans, but clearly we have more work to do to make sure water at all our beaches is safe,” said John Rumpler, Environment America’s Clean Water Program director. “We must invest in water infrastructure that prevents pollution to ensure that America’s waterways are safe for swimming.”

Fecal bacteria can make people ill, particularly with gastrointestinal ailments. Common sources of this pollution include stormwater runoff and sewage overflows. Swimming in polluted water causes an estimated 57 million cases of illness annually, according to a 2018 study from the journal Environmental Health.

This problem is widespread. In Illinois, for example, all 19 beach sites sampled exceeded the margin of safety for fecal bacteria recommended by the EPA. At one location at South Shore Beach in Cook County, bacteria levels were high enough to put swimmers at risk on (38) days.

Across the country, (2,620) beach sites exceeded this EPA margin of safety at least once last year.  

Of those, (605) locations were potentially unsafe in at least one-quarter of the bacteria tests. All told, there were 871 beach closures nationwide. 

The report includes several recommendations to prevent bacterial pollution and keep our beaches safe for swimming. Rain barrels, rooftop gardens, permeable pavement, and urban green space can all absorb stormwater runoff and prevent sewage overflows. Congress is now considering legislation to increase funding for such “green infrastructure” projects through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

"Our analysis of nearly 200,000 sampling results reveals threats to public health at beaches in every corner of the country, from Maine to Hawaii," said Gideon Weissman of Frontier Group, the report co-author. "It's no longer enough to warn swimmers when beaches may be unsafe, especially when there are steps we can take today to reduce the threat of bacterial contamination in our waterways."

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