Fecal bacteria found at more than half of US beaches last year, report says
Before diving into the waves this summer, beachgoers in the US might like to do some homework on what they will be diving into, according to a new report.
The Environment America Research and Policy Center (EARPC) found that more than half of American beaches were home to potentially dangerous levels of fecal bacteria at some point last year.
The Safe for Swimming? report contains analysis of data submitted to the National Water Quality Monitoring Council from 29 states and Puerto Rico. It found that 58% of 2,620 beaches analysed had fecal bacteria levels exceeding the “beach action value”, a threshold used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for making beach notification decisions, on at least one day in 2018.
A total of 605 sites were deemed potentially unsafe on at least a quarter of days on which water was tested.
Among the worst-offending states were Illinois, Mississippi and Louisiana, where all beaches tested were found to be unsafe on at least one day. Other badly performing states included Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Better-performing states included New Hampshire, where 15 of 47 beaches fell short on at least one day, Maine and Hawaii, which scored 39 of 85 and 90 of 218.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the annual European bathing water report, based on 22,000 sites across EU member states plus Albania and Switzerland, found that around 300 had poor bathing quality.
Peter Kristensen, European water expert for the European Environment Agency, said the two systems were “not fully comparable” because they use different guidelines.
A beach on Lake Erie in Pennsylvania. Photograph: Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo
“My impression is that the US standards may be stricter,” he said. “In the European system it is also possible after heavy rains and storm water overflow to warn against swimming and discard a sample taken under the short-term pollution event.”
According Safe for Swimming?, the worst beach in the US was Singing Bridge Beach in Arenac county, Michigan, which was found to have unsafe levels of fecal bacteria each time it was tested. San Pedro Creek in San Mateo county, California, came second with 91% of sampling days found to have potentially unsafe water.
Fecal contamination is caused by run-off and sewage overflows, said John Rumpler, co-author of the report and EARPC clean water program director. It can cause gastrointestinal illness, respiratory disease, eye and ear infections and skin rash. According to the report, each year there are an estimated 57m cases of recreational waterborne illness.
While Rumpler was not surprised by the results, he said they were disappointing.
“The basic findings of the report are that there’s far too much fecal bacteria pollution in places where we swim all across the US and that fecal bacteria is an indicator of pathogens in the water that can make swimmers sick,” he said. “So that’s a real cause for concern and we thought the public should know about it. Policymakers should know something about it too.”
Increasingly severe storms due to the climate crisis are likely to result in more run-off pollution and sewage overflows, he said.
Adding: “If you look at those of the predominant causes of fecal bacteria and water sewage overflows and run-off pollution, those factors are tending to be more ominous year by year.”
He believes there is hope. Some communities are investing in infrastructure such as rain barrels, expanded green space and rooftop gardens to help absorb storm water.
The 1972 Clean Water Act controls the discharge of pollution into US waters. Rumpler said the Trump administration could pose a risk to future bathing water quality if it were to weaken rules around sewage treatment plants, a measure he believes the EPA is considering.
Climate crisis is likely to result in more run-off pollution and sewage overflows onto beaches. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images
An EPA spokesperson said: “Last week, EPA issued its Beach Report: 2018 Swimming Season … a national summary of beach closings and advisories that states, territories and tribes issued during the 2018 swimming season as well as data trends from 2013 to 2018.
“This year’s report suggests that America’s beaches are open and safe for recreation the vast majority of the time. Specifically, the nation’s monitored coastal and Great Lakes beaches were open and safe for swimming 95% of the time during the 2018 swimming season. The 2018 results were similar to previous years.”
The EARPC report nonetheless calls for the government to take steps including increased funding for sewage systems, protection and restoration of natural infrastructure such as wetlands and strengthened enforcement of municipal wastewater treatment.
On a practical level, Rumpler said it was worth noting how often a beach has been measured unsafe: “Some of these beaches that we highlighted, they may have had an unsafe level, or potentially unsafe level, of fecal bacteria one or two days out of all the days that were tested. So that’s one set of risks as opposed to, say, the 605 beaches that we identified where the fecal bacterial levels were excessive at least 25% of the time or more.”
Colleen Henn, clean water and eastern Long Island chapter coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental charity, said surfers such as herself get sick from water bacteria.
She added: “I think that’s why this report really opened up people’s eyes and kind of scared people in a way … It is frequent for recreational [water] users to get sick from going to beach.”
In January 2018, the Environmental Health journal published a report on recreational waterborne illness which estimated water recreation activities cause 90m illnesses annually at a cost of $3.7bn.
Henn said she does not think water quality has worsened – rather that people are becoming more aware of it. That, she said, was “a wonderful thing”.