Beach Pollution: How Big Is the Problem?

Beach pollution is a problem in every coastal state. In the year 2002, beach pollution caused at least 12,184 closings and swimming advisories at ocean, bay, Great lakes, and some freshwater beaches. This pollution is hazardous to the environment, and swimming in contaminated beach waters may be dangerous to ones health. Additionally, these closings and swimming advisories may have impacts to local economies that rely heavily on beach-goers. Beach pollution is usually infrequent or confined to local areas. Based on the number of nationwide beach closings and swimming advisories, beach pollution is a persistent problem.

Primary Causes of Beach Pollution

Most U.S. beach closings result from high levels of harmful microorganisms found in untreated or partially treated sewage (most of which enters the water from combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, and malfunctioning sewage treatment plants). Heavy rainfall can overload sewer systems which carry raw sewage to sewage treatment plants. When flows exceed the capacity of the system, sewers can overflow and discharge untreated sewage from manholes and bypasses at pump stations and sewage treatment plants. The discharges flow into local waterways and pollute the water. Rainwater can also pick up pollutants as it washes over land, and boost the overall volume of storm water and polluted runoff that reaches coastal waters. Another significant source of beach water pollution is untreated storm water runoff from cities and rural areas. Additional local sources of pollution in beach waters are boating wastes and malfunctioning septic systems. Severe natural events such as hurricanes and floods may contribute to beach water pollution. In many cases, the sources of beach water pollution have not been tracked down. The vast majority of nationwide closings and advisories in 2002 (87%) were issued because monitors detected bacteria associated with fecal contamination; however, the source could not be identified.

Common Contaminants of Beach Water

Polluted stormwater runoff and untreated sewage released into the water can expose swimmers to bacteria, viruses, and protozoan. These pathogens (or disease carrying organisms) can be present at or near the site where polluted discharges enter the water. Swimming-related illnesses are typically minor in nature. They usually require little or no treatment and have no long-term health effects, but they can cause significant discomfort. The most common such illness is gastroenteritis. Its symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea, headache, and fever. Other minor illnesses commonly spread by contaminated beach water include eye, ear, nose, and throat infections. In waters that are highly polluted, more serious diseases like dysentery, hepatitis, cholera, and typhoid fever may be contracted. Most swimmers are exposed to waterborne pathogens by swallowing the water. Some infections (such as skin and eye infections) can be contracted from direct exposure to polluted water. In rare cases, swimmers can develop illnesses or infections from exposure to polluted water through an open wound. To reduce your chances of becoming ill from swimming at a public beach, always be aware of any closures or advisories, choose swimming sites in less developed areas with good water circulation, avoid swimming at beaches with visible discharge pipes or at urban beaches after a heavy rainfall, and, because most swimmers are exposed to pathogens by swallowing the water, swimming without submerging your head will help prevent many illnesses.

Monitoring Beach Pollution

Without monitoring, there is no way to guarantee that a beach is free of pollution. The frequency of monitoring is related to the risk of pollution from sewage and polluted runoff, and the extent of beach use.

What You Can Do to Prevent Beach Pollution

Pollution prevention efforts are the most effective way to reduce beach water pollution. Large-scale activities, such as the Mississippi Coastal Clean-Up, are organized by the state and other environmental organizations. Individual pollution prevention efforts include conserving water, keeping septic systems properly maintained, disposing of boat sewage in onshore sanitary facilities, and using natural fertilizers. These can be a big help in reducing beach water pollution.

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