Sunburn and sandy swimsuits are not all you may bring home from your next trip to the beach. Stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis can be real threats to swimmers. Two new beach reports out this month could reveal whether your favorite beach is a superstar or a repeat offender.
First, there’s the latest the word from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which released its annual analysis of water quality and public notification data at U.S. Coast beaches this week.
In 2011, U.S beaches were closed or under health advisories a total of 23,481 days, the third-highest level in the 22-year history of the NRDC report. Most of the closings and advisories stemmed from detection of fecal bacteria or that indicate the presence of pathogens that pose a threat to human health.
Often these bacteria are washed into beach areas after a big rain, which can wash pollution directly off parking lots and land surfaces and can also trigger harmful sewage overflows. Indeed, monitoring authorities cited stormwater pollution as the reason behind 47 percent of the beach closures and advisories in 2011.
On the brighter side, the portion of all monitoring samples that exceeded national recommended health standards remained stable at 8 percent (compared with 8 percent in 2010 and 7 percent for the four previous years).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which just issued its own report for 2011, seconds that conclusion. According to the EPA tally, beaches were closed or under an advisory about 5 percent of the time, the same as the past four years.
An advantage of the NRDC analysis over the EPA report is its handy comparisons of states and beaches. For instance, using the available water quality data, the NRDC awarded up to five stars to each popular beach for exceptionally low violation rates of maximum bacteria standards.
A beach can also earn stars for strong testing and safety practices. To earn all five stars, beach authorities must test water quality more than once a week, notify the public promptly when tests reveal bacteria levels violating health standards, and post closings and advisories both online and at the beach. Currently, these 12 beaches have a 5-star rating:
For the last six years, NRDC has also kept a list of the nation’s dirtiest beaches.
In 2011, for example, 159 beaches exceeded the EPA’s maximum bacteria standards for a single sample more than 25% of the time. Nine of those beaches are repeat offenders, meaning they made that list each of the past five years (2007-2011):
The EPA database is also searchable, albeit more complicated to navigate. The advantage is that you can generate your own reports of raw monitoring data and draw your own conclusions.
Bolsa Chica State Beach, Calif. (Regular Daddy, Wikimedia Commons)