Days at the beach may be numbered

September 03, 2007|By Nancy Stoner

It's Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer vacation, and millions of people are visiting beaches across America. Are they aware that last year, local environmental authorities issued more than 25,000 closings and advisories at coastal and bay beaches?

For 17 years, the Natural Resources Defense Council has analyzed beach closings and advisories at vacation beaches in the United States, and every year we see more added to the list. The trend is unmistakable, and it isn't going to change until we search for the pollution sources and fix them, instead of simply tallying the consequences. Fortunately, there is federal legislation that would do just that.

Beaches are being closed because the waters are contaminated with human and animal waste, most of which comes from improper management of stormwater runoff and sewage. Some sewer systems are 100 years old.

Some experts estimate that millions of Americans become sick every year from swimming in polluted beach water. Many of them may never know that they were swimming in contaminated water that made them ill. People who swim in polluted water can get sick with severe stomach, ear, skin and respiratory ailments, including serious illnesses such as meningitis and encephalitis. Risks are greater for small children, the elderly, cancer patients and those with weakened immune systems.

Nationwide, 7 percent of samples at coastal beaches violated federal public health standards. Maryland ranked sixth among coastal states in terms of the percentage of beach water samples that violated public health standards. It saw a 4 percent increase in the percentage of tests that violated minimum federal standards in 2006 and a more than 50 percent increase in closings and advisories during that same period. Most - 71 percent - of the closings and advisories were caused by elevated levels of bacteria in the water.

The federal Beach Protection Act of 2007 would require public health authorities across the country to use rapid test methods that would speed up the process of testing water to determine whether it is safe to swim. Under current law, authorities often notify swimmers and beachgoers of contaminated water and pollution levels 24 to 48 hours after initial testing. Swimmers find out on Sunday or Monday whether the beach was safe when they or their family went there Saturday.

The Beach Protection Act, which was introduced in the House and Senate just before Memorial Day, would also provide federal funding to beach communities to track and correct the sources of beach water pollution. This is an important improvement to the current law, which limits federal funding to monitoring the pollution and notifying the public of the risk. The legislation would provide grants to local communities to locate and address the sources of pollution to reduce public contact.

The Beach Protection Act provides the best approach to protecting public health and coastal economies. The problem is not going away - not until we clean up the sources of the contamination. If we don't invest in locating and addressing these pollution sources now, the problem of beach water pollution will only get worse. Instead of closing the beach, let's clean up the water.

Nancy Stoner serves as director for the Clean Water Project at Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. Her e-mail is nstoner@nrdc.org.

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