Ask Not How Clean But How Very Dirty Our Beaches Are


It’s summer, it’s hot, it’s time to go the beach — though if you read the National Resources Defense Council annual Testing The Waters report, you might have second thoughts.

The NRDC has been issuing the report for 22 years. 2011 saw the third-highest levels of beach closings and advisory days, for a total of 23,481 days, a 3 percent decrease from 2010. Says the Testing The Waters report:

More than two-thirds of closings and advisories were issued because bacteria levels in beachwater exceeded public health standards, indicating the presence of human or animal waste in the water. The portion of all monitoring samples that exceeded national recommended health standards for designated beach areas remained stable at 8% in 2011, compared with 8% in 2010 and 7% for the four previous years. In addition, the number of beaches monitored in 2011 increased slightly (2%) from a five-year low in 2010. The largest known source of pollution was stormwater runoff (47%, compared with 36% last year). The 2011 results confirm that our nation’s beaches continue to experience significant water pollution that puts swimmers and local economies at risk.

Up to 3.5 million people become ill (with stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis) from raw sewage from sanitary sewer overflows each year, according to the EPA.But that number should probably be higher as people often become ill from swimming in polluted waters but do not attribute them to be the cause.

How Did Our Public Waters Get So Dirty?

According to the Testing The Waters report, sources of pollution are:

(1) stormwater runoff, (2) sewage overflows and inadequately treated sewage, (3) agricultural runoff, and (4) other sources, such as beachgoers themselves, wildlife, septic systems, and boating waste.

Source number 4 is a reminder that we humans are polluting our beaches in ways that we are not fully aware of.

As Grist’s Philip Bump says about what you can expect if you take a dip in our public waters: “If you leave the house at all this summer, do so in a watertight wetsuit.”

Recommendations To Keep Our Beaches Safe

Some policy changes the NRDC urges are:

(1) Cleaning up polluted runoff by reducing the amount of stormwater flowing into drains in the first place, especially by creating a green infrastructure via such innovations as porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels to stop rain where it falls and storing it or letting it filter into the ground.

(2) Instituting better standards to protect beachgoers by urging that the EPA “revise the level of acceptable risk” for people getting gastrointestinal illness from public waters. As the NRDC notes, the EPA recently said that it is “acceptable” for 1 in 28 people to get sick from being at the beach and in the ocean, due to unsafe levels of disease-causing bacteria and viruses. But such a high rate is not acceptable; a rate such as 1 in 100 would be far better for our health.

If these arguments to protect the environment are not enough, there are economic reasons: 85 percent of all tourism revenue comes from coastal states. One reason people like to live there and to visit is precisely because of the beach. As the NRDC points out, closing Lake Michigan beach due to pollution could mean losses of as high as $37,030 per day.

Really, we simply cannot afford dirty beaches!


Related Care2 Coverage

EPA: It’s “Acceptable” For 1 in 28 To Get Sick From the Beach

California Surfers Work To Conserve Their Favorite Spots

Great Pacific Garbage Patch Leads To Boom In Ocean Bugs


Photo of the East River, New York City, by WaveBreaker

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Monica D.
Monica D.3 years ago

Sad! We humans can do better.

Cindy B.
Cindy Black3 years ago

Well, of course this is no news at all to anyone who follows the news..

Coral reef bleachings and die-offs, marine mammal/fish extinctions, acidification of the oceans to the point that Oysters CANNOT reproduce naturally anymore; the tiny shells simply melt.

Then there's the seabirds, turtles and other marine life who're dying due to the ingestion of garbage till their guts are blocked with the stuff... And no wonder! Floating garbage gyres the size of Texas, not to mention thousands of tons of Tsunami debris hitting US shores...

Even the polar bears, seals, etc., are being poisoned as mercury & other toxins accrue up the food chain.

And yet, even in Seattle, WA, a hugely "green" city, we have multitudes of people too damn lazy to cart their empty plastic bottles (etc.) home; they just toss them on the ground or aim 'em in the general direction of an already-overstuffed public garbage can... The crap blows around and eventually gets to the waterways one way or another. SOOO very depressing and infuriating. Human beings are, to a significant extent, just stupid, careless, thoughtless, dangerous yokels. We're murdering this planet and many people couldn't care less.

Mark F.
Mark Fan3 years ago

There is no money in it. Americans have to learn to drive less. The only way to do that is to push our reps to sponsor the building and integration of high speed rail, subway systems and bus systems.
China is kicking our tail. So in Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and just about every other nation in the world.
We still can't get rid of traditional energy wasting light bulbs.

Shawn O' Malley
Shawn O' Malley3 years ago

Let Corporate Rule poison our beaches, pollute our rivers and streams, USA shame on us standing for our dirty contaminated beaches.

Fred F.
Fred Fawcett3 years ago

Like every other aspect of our lives, we suffer this because of the greed that infects people. Who would have thought that this many years after the environment became an issue that we'd still see filth like this? I bet that the vast majority of the crap in our water and on our beaches is the result of businesses dumping illegally to save money. As if they have some other clean world to live in and this one doesn't matter. We don't have to live in a dump that sits on the shores of a cesspool. Put a dent in the unemployment rate and hire people to clean this up.

Isabel A.
Isabel Araujo3 years ago

We humans are responsible for this problem. How do we plan to solve it?.. Thank you.

Tom Sullivan
Tom C Sullivan3 years ago

Alot of the trash is left on the beach because people are too lazy to take there thrash with them, I see it daily in Gulf Shores

Florence Eaise
florene Eaise3 years ago

wow thanks for sharing i dont think ill be going in the ocean anymore! We just mess everything up dont we?

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons3 years ago

Its all the crap we are dumping in the ocean.

Katherine Wright
Katherine Wright3 years ago

This is downright shameful. People are too damn lazy to be considerate of what they do with their trash. Humans created this problem and it's our responsibility to clean it up. Animals are dying by the millions because of this. Makes me ashamed to be a human when I read articles like this...............