Report Half of US Beaches Have Unsafe Pollution Levels

Report Half of US Beaches Have Unsafe Pollution Levels

Water Pollution Threatens U.S. Beaches: A Day at the Beach May Not Be So Fun

A day at the beach can be fun with family and friends, but water pollution can ruin the experience. In a new report, the Environment America Research & Policy Center, a nonprofit organization, found that half of U.S. beaches had potentially unsafe contamination levels in 2022.

Water pollution is a more widespread issue than many might think, with 55% of nearly 3,200 beaches nationwide tested in 2022 showing potentially unsafe levels of fecal contamination on at least one day. It’s important to note that this data only represents the beaches that were tested, and contamination levels could have been even higher on untested days.

The report further reveals that 363 beaches had potentially unsafe levels of fecal contamination on at least 25% of the testing days. This highlights the severity and ongoing nature of the problem.

The Health Risks of Water Pollution

Contaminated water can have serious health consequences. It can lead to gastrointestinal illness, respiratory disease, ear and eye infections, and skin rashes. Shockingly, about 57 million cases of illness happen each year from swimming in oceans, lakes, rivers, and ponds.

In response to contaminated water, health warnings or beach closures are sometimes issued. In 2022, there were over 8,700 health warnings or closures at U.S. coastal and Great Lakes beaches, impacting 1 out of every 12 swimming days.

Sources of Beach Pollution

Beach pollution stems from various sources, including sprawling development, outdated sewage systems, spills from sanitary sewers, private septic systems, and factory farming.

Sprawling development has played a significant role in contributing to beach pollution. As more surfaces are paved, the ability of the land to absorb rainfall and filter pollution is diminished. This leads to increased runoff of pollutants from parking lots, roads, and larger homes. Additionally, the sewage and septic systems built to accommodate this development sometimes fail, exacerbating the contamination problem.

Between 1996 and 2016, U.S. coastal areas added 4.2 million acres of development while losing 640,000 acres of wetland and almost 10 million acres of forest. This loss of natural buffers further compounds the pollution issue.

Outdated sewage systems are another major culprit. Sewers overflow up to 75,000 times each year in the United States. More than 700 municipalities still have combined sewers, which discharge raw sewage directly into nearby waterways during heavy rain events.

Factory farming is a significant contributor to beach pollution as well. The large volume of waste generated from livestock production leads to fecal pollution. Animals produce more manure than cropland can absorb, further straining the capacity of the environment to handle the waste.

Addressing the Problem

To address the pervasive issue of water pollution, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021, providing $11.7 billion for sewage and stormwater projects. An additional $14.7 billion has also been authorized to work towards fixing these problems.

While this is a step in the right direction, more efforts are needed to protect the health of our beaches. Improving beach testing is crucial, as it helps identify potential contamination quickly and accurately. Additionally, protecting wetlands is vital, as they serve as natural filters, mitigating pollution before it reaches beaches and coastal areas.

In conclusion, the report by the Environment America Research & Policy Center highlights the alarming levels of water pollution affecting beaches in the United States. It is essential for governments, organizations, and individuals to take action to improve sewage systems, reduce pollution from various sources, and implement sustainable practices. By doing so, we can preserve the beauty and safety of our beaches for generations to come.


Environment America Research & Policy Center, news release, June 30, 2023


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