Two areas of the country had particularly worrisome results: Among the sites that tested their water, 85% of Gulf Coast beaches and 75% of Great Lakes beaches were unsafe for swimming at least once last year.
The research, done by the Environment America Research and Policy Center, analyzed 2018 bacteria testing data from more than 4,500 beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states as well as Puerto Rico. The results showed that 2,620 sites had at least one day of fecal contamination higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Beach Action Value.”
With contamination at that level, the EPA estimates that 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers may get stomach, respiratory, or other illnesses. The agency recommends issuing a public warning, but those decisions are made at the local level. More than 600 beaches had unsafe results in at least 25% of the tests. No state tested was completely free of potentially dangerous contamination.
“Should all those beaches be closed? Maybe, but at the very least the public has a right to know,” says John Rumpler, senior director of the Clean Water for America Campaign and co-author of the report. “Every state has its own standards for beach safety, and many don’t follow the Beach Action Value. If you live in a state with a higher threshold, the beach wouldn’t be closed, and there might not even be an advisory.”
“Our data doesn’t tell us why the beaches are polluted, but we know that sewage overflows and stormwater runoff tend to happen in large metropolitan areas,” says Rumpler. When it rains, the water has nowhere to go on developed landscapes like parking lots and sidewalks. It runs off into the street, pulling bacteria and chemicals along with it. That contaminated rainwater flows into the nearest waterway, or into the sewer. In some large cities, that’s enough to overwhelm the sewer system, which releases raw, untreated sewage. That, too, flows to the nearest waterway.
Lake Michigan, home to both Chicago’s and Milwaukee’s beaches, illustrates that point: Eight of Chicago’s beaches with testing were potentially unsafe for more than 25% of the days tested, and two of Milwaukee’s had higher levels for around 60%. And on the Gulf Coast, beaches near Houston, Corpus Christi, TX, Gulfport, MS, and Pensacola, FL, were all potentially unsafe more than half the time.
“This report is the bad news. The good news is that we believe there’s a real opportunity to start preventing this pollution and solving this problem,” says Rumpler. “Congress is right now considering reauthorization of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund — the major source of federal funding to invest in clean water infrastructure. If we do the right kinds of projects, it can prevent a lot of the pollution we’re seeing at our beaches.”
In the meantime, swimming in contaminated water causes up to 57 million illnesses each year, according to researchers. But when people get an upset stomach or a respiratory ailment after a trip to the beach, they may not connect it to swimming — especially since so many municipalities don’t follow the EPA’s Beach Action Value recommendation. Those people have no idea they’re frolicking in water that might not be safe.
“That may in part explain why we’re not making the investment to fix the pollution,” says Rumpler. “People aren’t making the connection between their illness and the cause. We want people to see the problem, what’s causing it, and how to prevent it. If your child gets sick a day after going to the beach, it’s worth making a call to the doctor just to connect the dots.”