Every state with ocean beaches had a beach pollution problem, according to NRDC"s report.© Getty Images
The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) last week announced its annual list of America’s best and worst beaches from an environmental and health safety perspective. Much to the group’s chagrin, pollution at the nation’s 3,500 ocean, lake and bay beaches resulted in 25,000 closing or swimming advisory days in 2006—a record number that represents a 28 percent increase from just the previous year.
According to NRDC, storm water runoff was the primary culprit in about 10,000 of the closings and advisories, while sewage spills and overflows accounted for another 1,300 cases. Fecal contamination from unknown so-called "non-point" sources accounted for the remaining problem days.
This year’s 17th annual version of the report, "Testing the Waters," took an especially close look at the nation’s highest risk beaches—those that are either very popular, very close to pollution sources, or both. Every state with ocean beaches experienced beach pollution problems, with 92 beaches in 19 states qualifying as "high risk." High risk means the water was detected as unsafe in more than a quarter of the samples taken. Beaches in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Minnesota fared worst based on peer-reviewed analysis of experts from various local and state health agencies, academia, and the research community.
"Exposure to bacteria, viruses and parasites in contaminated beach water can cause a wide range of diseases, including ear, nose and eye infections; gastroenteritis; hepatitis; encephalitis; skin rashes; and respiratory illnesses," states the NRDC report, which cites data from the Centers for Disease Control indicating that as many as 7 million Americans get sick every year from drinking or swimming in water contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites.
NRDC is working to remedy such problems by educating the public and policymakers of potential solutions. "A summer rainstorm should not have to mean that endless amounts of pollution are washed down to the beach, or that sewers will overflow," says Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s water program. "We can fix leaky pipes; we can require costal developers to maintain vegetation to absorb rain. The solutions are out there."