It would be ok for 1 in 28 people to get sick after swimming at the beach according to a new proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That is, at least one of the people on the beach with you is likely to end up with vomiting, diarrhea with fever and stomachache, or nausea accompanied by a fever, under the EPA’s proposed guidelines for levels of beach pollution.
If that makes you feel less than inclined to go for an ocean swim, it should. As the National Resource Defense Council‘s Switchboard explains, the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 required that, by 2005, the EPA would issue recreational beach criteria that would be “for the purpose of protecting human health” at beaches on the coasts and the Great Lakes. But the EPA failed to meet the deadline, leading the NRDC to sue and gain a court order requiring the EPA to follow the law.
The EPA has devised a proposal but one that leaves much to be desired to protect public health. At the levels of beach contamination that the EPA seeks to allow, 36 out of 1,000 people will end up with diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomachache. It is apparently “acceptable” for that many people (1 out of 28) to become ill after swimming at the beach.
Rather than trying to tighten regulations on beach pollution and seeking to ensure that fewer people become ill with some highly unpleasantly illnesses, the EPA is letting the level of allowable contamination stay the same. The only change, says NRDC, is that we know more about such illnesses (that the diarrhea could also come with fever). But such is not enough:
… the EPA must address all known risks to human health. The EPA’s proposal fails to do so as it sweeps the most fundamental and alarming point under the rug: knowingly allowing one in 28 people to get sick is not protecting public health, nor is it legal.
Furthermore, the EPA seems also to be cutting corners in the ways it measures pollution, by allowing “water test results at beaches to be averaged over a period as long as 90 days” and by decreeing that one in every four samples must be beyond safe levels before the EPA will call for a reduction in beach pollution. Such measures do not adequately protect beachgoers. Says NRDC:
This is entirely incompatible with the Clean Water Act’s goal of “fishable/swimmable” waters. Quite simply, no one swims, paddles, or fishes in “average” water. They come into contact with water in whatever condition they find it at that particular time.
Of course one faces risks when swimming in the ocean or in a lake. But the EPA needs to live up to its name and look out for our oceans and lakes and ensure that pollution is not simply at “acceptable” levels, but at ones that are safe and that mean we can expect a sunburn at worst (not some equivalent of Montezuma’s revenge) after a visit to the beach.
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Photo by John Weiss