No ‘Day at the Beach’ with Pollution-related Closures

June 6, 2017

TipSheet: No ‘Day at the Beach’ with Pollution-related Closures

As school ends and summer blooms, people will be heading to the beach. The water may be warmer — but is it safe?

Every summer many beaches are closed across the country because the water is polluted in ways that may make people sick. For environmental journalists, this is usually a tip-off to important local stories. Keep an eye out.

Often, the closures are triggered by high fecal coliform levels. This usually signals some failure of the area’s sewage treatment system, and significant risk of disease as a result of contact with the water.

Historically, and still today, one of the major causes of transmittable disease in humans worldwide is the “fecal-oral” route of transmission. Sick people defecate, it gets into water, which people ingest, making them sick, too.

This is how cholera and typhoid fever spread — diseases which were common in the United States just over a century ago before modern sewage collection and treatment began.

One problem is that sewage systems can fail, even today in the United States. In many cities, especially older cities in the East, sanitary and storm sewers are combined. When the systems are hit by unusually large stormwater flows, they may be forced to release untreated human sewage into lakes, streams, estuaries and ocean waters. Construction to separate the combined sewers is so expensive that few cities make much headway on it.

Nature eventually degrades even the worst sewage-borne microbial contamination of waters that people swim in. But in the meantime, states and municipalities will declare beaches “closed” for swimming or body contact. When this happens, the public needs to know about it. The beaches may be closed for weeks.

Getting info on closures

Your best bet for finding out about beach closures is via state and municipal agencies. But microbial contamination of beach waters is often chronic or recurring, and it happens with some predictability after major storm events and during months when water temperatures are warmer.

Warning sign in a beach on Lake Marion, Kansas.
Warning sign in a beach on Lake Marion, Kansas. PHOTO: Jennifer L. Graham, U.S. Geological Survey

Find out where beaches have been closed in your area previously. Find out where the outfalls of treated (hopefully) wastewater are discharged.

The agency that declares beaches closed may well be your state or local department of health. If you Google “beach closure advisory” and the name of your state or county, you will probably find it.

Many state health departments (or departments of environmental quality or natural resources) maintain websites listing all currently dangerous beaches in the state. A list of responsible state agencies is here. And you will probably see signs at the beach site, if it is closed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tries to maintain a nationwide, mapped database of beach closure conditions, but it isn’t too helpful. It is called BEACON (Beach Advisory and Closing Online Notification). The BEACON database seems only to be updated once a year, after the season is over.

[Note that the BEACON website doesn’t work too well, partly because it relies on Adobe Flash, and some browsers turn Adobe Flash off because it doesn’t work well. You may have to turn Adobe Flash on before the site will work with your browser — if it works at all.]

Monitoring & testing via ‘BEACH’ Act

The congressional BEACH Act (Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health), enacted in 2000, requires EPA to set water quality standards for pathogens for coastal beaches, as well as to maintain the BEACON database.

The act also sets up a program offering grants to encourage microbiological testing and monitoring by state and local agencies. The grants had amounted to roughly $10 million a year across all states during the law’s first decade, but in recent years have been under attack by budget-cutters. Advocates argue that the benefits in tourist dollars vastly outweigh that.

EPA has in previous years compiled a “National List of Beaches,” as required by the BEACH Act. The 2010 version exists in paper form. The interactive form of this list is also essentially a database and may be more useful.

One important thing the national list tells you is whether the beach is monitored. If it is, you should get the reports. If a beach has a history of problems, you should watch it more closely.

Typically, beach water testing may be for “coliform” bacteria, which are found in the guts of animals (including humans). Coliform bacteria themselves may not cause disease, but they are an indicator that feces, possibly from sewage, may be present — along with a host of pathogens both bacterial and viral.

Tracking ‘Red Tides’

Many other forms of disease-causing pollution may be found at recreational beaches, among them parasites like cryptosporidium.

The higher water temperatures at beaches in the summer may also encourage pathogenic microorganisms to multiply. Such is the case with the vibrio genus of bacteria (to which cholera belongs), which currently in the United States, most often makes people sick from raw oysters.

Warmer water temperatures also encourage algal blooms — fed by pollution (often via agriculture) from the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. Some blooms of algae are highly toxic, both to people and to aquatic and marine species.

The notorious “Red Tide” is one instance of this problem and will close a beach to swimming. The toxins can be hazardous when they become aerosols and are inhaled. The algae-produced toxin microcystin from Lake Erie was what caused the drinking-water crisis in Toledo in 2014; that also affected beaches.

Apart from the EPA water office, which administers the BEACH program, another good source of information is the Surfrider Foundation, a chapter-based organization which advocates for clean beaches.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 23. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.


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