U.S. Beaches Are So Full of Sewage Pollution, They're Often Unsafe for Swimming, New Report Finds

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I don’t go to the beach for the sand or the sun. I go for the waves. There’s nothing like splashing in the water after lugging your cooler, chair, and beach umbrella to your designated spot. Unfortunately, I may need to think twice about going for a swim at the beach. And so should you.

A new report out Tuesday has found that more than half of the beaches in coastal states, the Great Lakes states, and Puerto Rico saw at least one day in 2018 where their water wasn’t safe for swimming. Why? Bacteria levels were higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency deems acceptable.

Yeah, gross.


The report—put out by Environment America and Frontier Group, both advocacy groups dedicated to improving the environment—looked at national data from 4,523 beach sites in 29 states. The report authors measured the beach’s quality using the EPA standard, which measures the concentration of bacteria in a sample of beach water. Literal shit from runoff and sewage is the main source of this nasty-ass pollution.

This pollution can expose swimmers to illness or infection, especially people with compromised immune systems or the very young or elderly. Individuals may walk away from their beach day with an ear or eye infection or perhaps even gastroenteritis, which may involve a fever, puking, or painfully spending the day on the toilet. Nearly 7,000 people died in 2017 due to pathogens transmitted by water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At 578 of the beaches, the researchers found the water was unsafe 25 percent of the days sampled, according to data pulled from the National Water Quality Monitoring Council. Local, state, and federal agencies submit local sampling information to this database. Gulf Coast states, like Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, saw 86 percent of their sites unsafe for at least one day last year. East Coast beaches are seemingly the safest; only 48 percent were unsafe at least one day last year.

This information feels especially relevant as we hit Peak Summer, aka primetime for beach-going. Typically, if a beach is experiencing unsafe levels of bacteria, the local or state agency responsible for it will issue a health advisory so that people don’t swim. Still, as the report makes clear, issues of water quality have existed for decades. Yet here we are—still dealing with the same old thang. Shouldn’t we have stopped polluting our waterways by now?


The report suggests improving sewage infrastructure and building systems to capture runoff before it reaches our oceans. Regulators could also enforce the legal protections that already exist for our waterways. That way, less industry—from livestock to wastewater treatment—dumps their shit into our water.

Correction 4:15 p.m. ET: A previous version of this story said that 610 of the beaches sampled saw water unsafe 25 percent of the days sampled. Environment America told Earther that there was an error in the original report, and the number of beaches was actually 605.


Correction July 25, 2019, 3:50 p.m. ET: A previous version of this story said that 605 beaches had unsafe water 25 percent of the days sampled. Environment America told Earther that this updated number was again wrong, and the number is actually 578. Also, the story had previously said that Gulf states saw 85 percent of their sites unsafe for at least one day last year. Environment America told Earther there was another error in the original report, and that number is 86 percent.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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Dense non aqueous phase liquid

I recommend environmental charities focus less on communications and more on pollution control upgrades and remediation. Talk (or unactionable nonprofit reporting) is cheap.

Sure it’s nice to zoom out to get a nationwide big picture in PDF. But beachcombers already know the local conditions, assuming the parks department can afford placards that say, “Do Not Swim.”

So whether it’s big green (EDF, NRDC, Sierra Club, WWF, etc) or smaller groups like Environment America (the author of the subject report) or local enviro groups - they can pool resources to deploy enviro projects as one entity. Let’s call this entity Enviro Doers, Fuck Yeah! (or EDFY!)

For example:

1) Local POTW (publicly owned treatment works) isn’t in compliance and the municipality is broke as fuck? EDFY! pays for POTW upgrades and get folks up-to-speed on environmental (formally sanitation) engineering to volunteer design and construction. Thousand points of light and all.

2) Livestock runoff running off all over the place? EDFY! dispatches an army of folks to build poop piles retentions schemes and remediation methods for what’s already left the pile and the farm.

3) Nutrient loading (i.e. what bacteria love and need to multiply), turns a little problem into a big one at the beach? EDFY! sends enviro do gooders to farms all across America to build berms for surface runoff and slurry walls for groundwater. Or whatever works.

4) EDFY! would assumed to be licensed and bonded.