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Can Your Beach Vacation Make You Sick?
by Peter Lehner
When I started visiting our Santa Monica office, I was thrilled to get up early and go down to the beach to body surf. It was well worth braving the cold water, because sometimes I’d be joined by a dolphin or sea lion. My California colleagues, however, were not so enthusiastic about my morning swim. Polluted water from storm drains, they warned me, contaminated the beach in some places. Rashes, pinkeye, stomach bugs, respiratory infections, meningitis, hepatitis—any one of these can strike an unlucky beachgoer who gets into dirty water. In fact, researchers have estimated that across Southern California, anywhere from 600,000 to four million beachgoers come down with a gastrointestinal ailment each year.
The major known source of beach pollution isn’t careless litterbugs on the beach—oddly enough, it’s rain. In our heavily paved, concrete environment, rainwater doesn’t soak back into the ground or evaporate back to the air as it should. Instead, it flows off the hard surfaces of streets, driveways, parking lots and rooftops, picking up dirt, garbage, pet waste, motor oil and other pollutants, and carries it straight into the nearest ocean, lake, or stream. This stormwater—as little as a half-inch of rain in some places—can also overwhelm sewer systems and trigger the discharge of sewage—hundreds of billions of gallons of mucky water every year—into waters where people swim.
Several forward-thinking cities around the country, including Philadelphia and New York City, are starting to tackle this pollution with innovative “green” infrastructure. Rather than building more tanks and pipes and tunnels to contain and control dirty water, these cities are turning to greener solutions that allow rainwater to do what it’s supposed to do—evaporate or soak back into the earth. Plantings on rooftops, roadside trees, parks and other greenery, porous pavements, wetlands and rain barrels all trap stormwater where it falls, and let it evaporate or filter into the ground instead of becoming a conduit for pollution.
Tackling stormwater with green infrastructure represents a major shift in thinking on the part of city officials—I can vouch for this from my years of experience working on clean water issues as an environmental attorney, both at NRDC and in city and state government. The engineers who run water and sewer systems tend to think, understandably, that the solution to all water problems lies in steel and concrete. When we worked to preserve and expand a series of wetlands and streams in Staten Island as a replacement for storm sewers—the Bluebelt—engineers were highly skeptical. But they were convinced when the project successfully moved water as well as cleaned it, at a lower cost than building out tanks and pipes.
As we’ve seen in Staten Island and elsewhere, green infrastructure really works. Bu most of the country is still very much behind the curve in implementing this cost-effective pollution control. The EPA has a major opportunity to drive the growth of more green infrastructure nationwide, as it revises its standards for stormwater management. The long-awaited revisions could—and must—establish clear standards for buildings, roads, parking lots, and other developed sites to retain stormwater. These standards will create incentives for the development of more rain-soaking green infrastructure across the country. It’s not only a cost-effective way to reduce water pollution at our beaches and elsewhere—green infrastructure improves neighborhoods by adding green space, cooling and cleaning the air, reducing flooding, and enhancing local water supplies.
If you’re going to the beach this summer, stay safe. Check NRDC’s beach map to find water quality information from your favorite beach, and see how well officials protect swimmers through frequent monitoring and timely reporting on water quality issues. NRDC also issues star ratings for 200 popular beaches—13 beaches earned five stars this year, while 11 landed on our repeat offenders list.
No matter where you’re headed, avoid swimming for 24 hours after it rains and 72 hours after a heavy rain; stay away from drain pipes, and if you have kids, teach them NOT to swallow water. Kids seem to be far more prone to getting sick at the beach, in part because they’re more likely to duck their heads under and drink water.
If you’re rolling your eyes about staying out of the water for a whole day after it rains—that might be all the time you have at the beach, after all—then consider this. Swimming advisories posted at the beach might not give you the whole story. The EPA recently revised its 25-year-old standards for beachwater quality—and made them weaker. The new rules allow bacteria levels to exceed standards as much as 10 percent of the time before triggering a violation, and make it acceptable for one in 28 swimmers to get sick with gastrointestinal illness.
That’s a like a school saying it’s okay for one kid in a class to vomit or get diarrhea after eating lunch.
This is not okay. The EPA’s job is to protect public health, and their standards for beachwater quality should be strong enough to keep swimmers safe. We’ve put the EPA on notice that we may be forced to take them to court if they don’t address these problems soon.
Images courtesy of Hannah Arista Photography