Ocean City's beach has not been closed because of pollution for at least the past three summers, but a Washington environmental group warns that Marylanders should not assume the state's waters are safe for swimming.
Beach-goers nationwide are at risk of illness from pollution and from inconsistent government standards for protecting the public from contaminated water, says the Natural Resources Defense Council in a report issued today.
The NRDC found in a survey of 10 states, including Maryland, that there were 2,400 beach closings and swimming advisories in 1989 and 1990. Inadequate and overloaded sewage treatment systems seem to be the major cause for the closures and warnings, the report says.
The NRDC says there have been no beach closures or advisories issued for Maryland's Atlantic beach or on the bay.
But state environmental officials dispute that, saying local health officials in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Cecil counties have closed beaches or posted warnings at swimming areas around the bay when they have found high bacterial counts.
The task of monitoring public beaches and deciding whether to close them or warn the public against swimming in contaminated waters has been left to state and local officials, the NRDC report says. There is no uniform approach, and the federal government and many states do little to oversee the safety of beaches, much less collect information on them.
"The absence of beach closures or beach advisories does not always mean the absence of a problem or the absence of a public health threat," says Diane Cameran, an NRDC resource specialist.
Maryland and some other states do not follow federal guidelines on testing for disease-carrying bacteria in coastal water, the report says.
Only in New Jersey, where there have been nearly 500 beach closures in the past two years, is there a requirement that beaches must be closed if bacterial contamination is found.
The NRDC faults the Environmental Protection Agency for not requiring states to follow its recommendations on beach testing. The report supports legislation pending in Congress that would set federal standards for testing water and for deciding when to close beaches or notify the public that swimming could be a health risk.
EPA recommends that states sample their marine beaches for enterococcal bacteria, which indicates the presence of raw sewage in water.
Maryland and other states test for fecal coliform, another type of bacteria that also indicates the presence of human or animal waste. In Maryland, water is considered unsafe for swimming if samples taken over a month contain more than 200 such bacteria, on average, per 100 milliliters.
But the NRDC's Cameron contended that "Maryland's standard is a less accurate indicator" than EPA's of the risk of illness. EPA's suggested limit is 35 enterococcal bacteria per 100 milliliters seawater.
The NRDC contends that even EPA's standard is too lax because as many as 19 out of every 1,000 swimmers exposed to that level of bacteria could come down with water-borne illnesses such as gastroenteritis and hepatitis.
State environmental officials defended their policy of letting county health officials conduct water sampling and decide on beach closures.
"There's no way from Annapolis or Baltimore that we can make informed judgments about a beach or stream on the Eastern Shore," said Peter Tinsley, deputy water management director for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "There certainly haven't been any significant outbreaks of disease in Maryland associated with swimming."
But the public often is left in the dark about beach contamination, contends the NRDC. Last summer, for instance, residents of Oxford in Talbot County apparently were not notified of high fecal coliform levels at a local bayside beach until more than a month after the levels were detected, the report says.
There have been beach closings along the Atlantic coast in neighboring states. The NRDC report says there have been 73 swimming warnings or beach closures in Delaware the past two years. Delaware tests its waters more frequently than Maryland -- on a weekly basis -- and uses a testing method and standard much closer to EPA's, NRDC says.
The Assateague National Seashore at Chincoteague, Va., was closed last weekend because bacterial readings exceeded the EPA standard. No such contamination was found off the beaches on the Maryland end of the seashore.