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From the Editors of E/The Environmental
Catching a Clean Wave
Is a day at the beach safe anymore?
A friend of mine refuses to swim at our beach near Los Angeles because the water is too polluted. What is the status of beach pollution, and is it safe for my kids and me to take a dip?
Oscar Jeffries, Santa Monica, Calif.
Pollution levels are not the same at all beaches, so local conditions dictate whether or not it is safe to swim in the ocean near you. Local officials are required by federal law to monitor coastal pollution levels and post warnings as needed. But some local water quality officials are more diligent than others, so if you have any reason to doubt the cleanliness of the beach water, it is best to stay out.
Beach pollution originates with a variety of sources, including human, animal, agricultural and industrial waste, as well as leaked motor oil and gasoline, among other contaminants. Swimming in contaminated beach water can expose people to harmful chemicals, bacteria and viruses.
The most common illness associated with exposure to contaminated beach water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is gastroenteritis, which rears its ugly head in the form of nausea, vomiting, stomach ache, diarrhea, headache and sometimes fever. Ear, eye, nose and throat infections can also ensue from swimming in polluted water.
Back in 2000, Congress called on the EPA to update its beach water health standards by 2005 to reflect increased pollution over the past 20 years, when the agency last issued standards. They missed the deadline, so in 2006 the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit against the EPA for failing to honor its congressional mandate. On the same day it filed suit, the Council issued a report showing that beach closings due to hazardous bacterial contamination had jumped 50 percent in Los Angeles County last year alone. Further, across the U.S. beaches were closed or posted with health advisories 20,000 times in 2005.
New Hampshire and Delaware had the cleanest ocean beaches, with contamination exceeding federal safety levels in only one percent of the samples taken, according to Natural Resources Defense Council. But beaches in California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island and South Carolina were in violation of existing contamination standards at least half the time samples were taken in 2005.
Natural Resources Defense Council acknowledges that better local monitoring may explain the increase in closings in 2005, but it warns that many beaches deemed safe according to 20-year-old standards may not actually be so. For its part, the EPA reports it will now not be able to issue updated standards until 2011.
For more information:
• EPA Beach Pollution Info: www.epa.gov/beaches/learn/pollution.html.
• NRDC Beach Pollution FAQ: www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/qttw.asp;
• Great Lakes Commission: www.glc.org.