Swimming advisories are warnings to the public that contact with beach water could cause an illness. Advisories may be issued after water monitoring, testing that reveals potentially harmful bacteria levels. Water monitoring assesses levels of E. coli and fecal coliform contamination in recreational waters. Local authorities restrict use of water for recreational activities when the bacteria level exceeds standards for safe usage.
A beach may be closed when the level of water contamination poses a definite health risk. Mildly polluted water can cause conditions such as a headache, sore throat, or vomiting. Highly polluted water can cause hepatitis, cholera , and typhoid fever.
Swimming advisories are usually issued by governmental agencies and apply to public beaches at the ocean and waterways such as bays, lakes, and rivers. Advisories may be issued for public pools, too. However, not all states had programs to monitor water quality and issue public advisories as of May of 2002.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state and local governments issued nearly 4,000 beach closings and swimming advisories in 1995. Those actions involved the ocean, bays, and the Great Lakes . In 2000, there were at least 11,270 beach closings and advisories in the United States, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council . NRDC also reported 48 extended closings and advisories that lasted from six to 12 weeks. Also reported were 50 permanent closings and advisories that lasted for more than 12 weeks.
NRDC is an environmental group that has surveyed beaches since 1990. Each July, the group issues "Testing the Waters," a state-by-state assessment of beaches. The survey covers ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches. The report was based on information from local, county, state and federal agencies including the EPA.
According to NRDC, 11 states and Guam monitored water quality at all beaches at least once a week. Regular monitoring of all beaches was performed in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Monitoring of some beaches was performed at least weekly in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
In states where monitoring improved, there was more awareness about unhealthy water quality. More monitoring led to additional advisories and closures. The 2000 NRDC report ranked California at the top of the state list in terms of advisories and closures. Nearly one-third of California advisories and closures occurred in San Diego and Los Angeles counties.
An example of procedures for swimming advisories can be found in a San Diego County report for 2001. For the county, 2001 was the first full year that San Diego followed regulations in the state Beach Safety Bill. In 2001, water contamination caused 1,301 advisory and closure days, according to a report from the San Diego County Department of Health.
An advisory was triggered when bacterial levels exceeded state standards. Sources of bacteria could include human or animal waste , soil , or decaying plant material. During an advisory, signs on the beach warn, "Contact With This Water May Cause An Illness."
Beach closings can be caused by sewage spills. These pose the greatest health risk to swimmers, and beach signs warned, "Contaminated Water — Keep Out."
San Diego County also listed 72-hour general advisories. The three-day advisories occurred after rainfall measuring 0.2 in (0.5 cm) or more. Rainfall washes pollutants off areas like streets. Pollutants traveled to the ocean through storm drains. Advisories were posted on the County Web page and phone tape, and in the local newspaper.
San Diego was typical of beach cities in terms of what caused water pollution and illnesses. Sources of water pollution include water runoff , malfunctioning sewage treatment plants, and the waste and litter left by people.
People are at risk when they swim or come into contact with polluted water. The risk of illness increases when a person swallows water. Furthermore, direct exposure to water sometimes causes skin and eye infections, according to the EPA.
The EPA advised the public to visit beaches that are regularly monitored. Groups including the EPA provide beach monitoring information on their Web sites. The EPA also cautioned people against swimming near sewage discharge pipes and to avoid swimming in urban beaches after a heavy rainfall.
Groups campaigning for national water monitoring policy include American Oceans Campaign , an organization founded by actor Ted Danson. In 2002, American Oceans Campaign and NRDC were among the groups that wanted the Bush administration to implement federal water quality standards that President Bill Clinton approved before leaving office in 2000.
The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000 authorized $30 million for beach monitoring grants. States with coasts and bays and those containing the Great Lakes are eligible for grants allocated through the EPA. States can use the grants to set up or improve programs to monitor water quality. Grant money can also be used for programs to inform the public about water pollution. In 2002, President George W. Bush budgeted $2 million for BEACH grants.
[Liz Swain ]
American Oceans Campaign., 600 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Suite 210, Washington, D.C. USA 20003, (202) 544-3526, Fax: (202)544-5625, Email: [email protected], <http://www.americanoceans.org>
Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water (4101M), 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. USA 20460, (202) 566-0388, Fax: (202) 566-0409, Email: [email protected], <http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/beaches/>