If you're not careful, you may bring something other than sand and wet swimsuits home from a day at the beach this summer.
Released Wednesday, the report card on more than 3,000 of the nation's beaches shows that the water can put swimmers at risk for catching a range of bacterial and viral illnesses.
"There's a silent and invisible danger," said Steve Fleischli, director of the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which produces the yearly report.
Although the number of beach closings and advisories about polluted water at coastal U.S. beaches last year was down 14 percent from 2011, there were more than 20,000 beach closing and advisory days throughout the nation. Fifty-nine beach closing and advisory events lasted longer than six weeks, and 38 such events lasted 13 weeks in a row.
The decline was attributed to a substantially drier beach season in large parts of the continental United States and Hawaii. Rainier seasons tend to be associated with higher numbers of advisories because raw sewage can overflow from treatment plants after periods of intense rain.
The high number of closings and advisories shows that beaches have a serious water pollution problem, Fleischli said. "Too many beaches are sick," he added.
Bacteria levels that exceed quality standards established for beach water were the top reason beaches were closed or advisories were issued. High levels of bacteria suggest the presence of human or animal waste, according to the NRDC.
Overall, 7 percent of beach water samples violated public-health standards, said Jon Devine, senior water attorney for the NRDC. The Great Lakes had the highest contamination rate, at 10 percent of samples, while Delaware had the lowest, with 3 percent of beach water samples showing bacteria.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 3.5 million people become ill from contact with raw sewage in beach water every year, according to the report.
The NRDC experts estimated that the number could be even larger, as many of those who develop gastrointestinal or other illnesses after a day at the beach don't associate their illness with the ocean, or fail to report it.
Beach water pollution also can cause skin rashes; pinkeye (conjunctivitis); respiratory ailments; hepatitis; neurological disorders; ear, nose and throat problems; and other serious health problems, according to the NRDC.
Thirteen beaches received five-star ratings based on indicators of beach water quality, monitoring frequency and public-notification policies about contamination, including Hampton Beach State Park in New Hampshire and San Clemente State Beach in California.
Among the 13 worst beaches in 2012 were New York's Ontario Beach, as well as Avalon Beach on Catalina Island in California. Some of the beaches cited as having persistent contamination problems are large, with only certain sections considered worrisome, the NRDC noted.
Fleischli said two actions are critical to improve the health of the nation's beaches: clean up polluted water by using green infrastructure (such as swales to corral storm water runoff, porous pavement, green roofs and rainwater barrels) and get the EPA to improve its standards for judging beach water quality. "The EPA recently revised its standards, allowing one in 28 people to get sick at beaches that are supposedly safe," he said.
Beachgoers can help protect themselves from getting sick, according to the NRDC, by doing the following:
- Swimming only at beaches where authorities test the water frequently and close the beach or issue an advisory when it is polluted.
- Staying out of the water when there are closings or advisories.
- Avoiding swimming at beaches with nearby discharge pipes or at urban beaches after a heavy rainfall.
- Avoiding putting your head under the water and not swimming if you have an open wound or infection.
Devine suggested beachgoers check the local public-health department's website for recent water-testing information. "Then, when you get to the beach, use common sense," he said. "Is the water murky? Does it smell bad? If so, don't swim in it."