Thousands of beach closures and advisories linked to bacteria.
Millions of Americans will hit the beach this summer to soak up the sun and surf, and many of them will go home harboring an unintended souvenir — bacterial infection.
Ailments such as stomach flu and other infections can develop after exposure to bacteria commonly found in recreational waters contaminated by septic leaks, baby diapers, agricultural runoff, animal droppings and even rainfall.
Across the United States, officials issued almost 6,500 contamination advisories at nearly 1,200 coastal and Great Lake beaches during the past two years alone after routine monitoring revealed high concentrations of illness-inducing bacteria, according to 2017 and 2018 data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Officials additionally posted 1,600 closures across 480 beaches during the same time period, the data showed.
The actions were part of the U.S. Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act — or BEACH Act — administered by the EPA. The program provides grants to states, territories and tribes to monitor the presence of pollution from E. coli and enterococci bacteria at more than 3,500 beaches along the nation’s coastline and Great Lakes and to notify the public when unsafe swimming conditions occur.
The BEACH Act requires monitoring only for indications of fecal pollution, an EPA spokesman said in an email to GateHouse Media. It does not mandate routine testing for the harmful toxins produced by algae blooms, like the kind that closed several Mississippi Gulf Coast beaches this summer.
Nor does the program require monitoring for certain types of bacteria, such as group A strep, that can cause necrotizing fasciitis. Florida beaches have been blamed for several cases of necrotizing fasciitis — also known as flesh-eating bacteria — this summer alone. At least two people died from the infection.
Some jurisdictions do monitor for those kinds of concerns, though, the EPA spokesman said.
Racking up the most actions under the BEACH Act were Santa Monica State Beach, Inner Cabrillo Beach and Long Beach — all in Los Angeles County, California.
“When I get sick 24 to 48 hours after going surfing in questionable water, it leaves me thinking that’s what’s happened,” said Bill Hickman, Southern California regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation. The foundation was a major supporter of the BEACH Act bill, which was signed into law nearly two decades ago, and continues to advocate for full funding of the program.
Hickman said he sometimes develops sinus infections accompanied by a sore throat and head cold shortly after surfing. The most recent was in January 2018, after the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara.
“After the fire we had a pretty significant rainfall and there were advisories,” Hickman said. “I stayed out of the water for about two days, but I wanted to get out there. I got a pretty bad sinus infection.”
Nearly half of all BEACH Act advisories and closures in 2017 and 2018 were issued solely due to elevated bacteria in the water. The other half were attributed to rainfall alone or a combination of elevated bacteria and rainfall together. A small percentage — less than 5 percent — were due to other causes.
Heavy rains can increase the chance for bacteria due to sewage overflows that drain into the storm water system and eventually end up in the oceans and Great Lakes.
“The number of beach advisories/closures in a given year varies, in part due to weather conditions,” New York State Department of Health spokeswoman Jill Montag. “If a certain amount of rainfall is received over a certain duration, the beach is closed or put under advisory preemptively because rainfall is anticipated to affect water quality at the beach.”
Grant recipients report monitoring and notification data back to the EPA, typically at the end of the beach season. Data for 2019 is not yet available for all beaches.
GateHouse Media’s analysis does not include non-coastal or non-Great Lake beaches monitored throughout the country under different programs.
Click here to search actions for beaches that report to the EPA.
Among the 30 states covered by the BEACH Act, California, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois had the highest total number of closures and contamination advisories in the two-year period, EPA data show.
But jurisdictions monitor at different frequencies. Some places test beach waters a few times a year while others test seven days a week, EPA data show. More testing could result in more closures and advisories.
And while some jurisdictions adhere to the EPA’s bacteria threshold — which caps the presence of bacteria at an amount that would cause illness in 36 out of 1,000 beachgoers —others adopt different, but still EPA-approved, limits.
In any case, when the presence of bacteria exceeds water quality standards, officials will close a beach or issue an advisory.
Some beaches, however, aren’t monitored at all.
“Jurisdictions prioritize which beaches should be monitored,” said EPA spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage. “Typically beaches that jurisdictions choose not to monitor would be considered significantly lower on the risk/use scale.”
Florida monitored less than half its coastal beaches in 2018. The state of Washington monitored just one in 20 beaches. California and 13 other states test all their coastal or Great Lake beaches at some point during the year.
But testing is a slow process that can leave people exposed to hazardous conditions for hours or even days before a notice goes up.
“Depending on the testing method, it can take anywhere from 18 hours to several days to process a sample,” said Kat Walsh, a senior environmental scientist supervisor for the California State Water Resources Control Board.
An estimated hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people get sick every year as a result. But accurate numbers of beach-induced illness are hard to come by, since many people don’t realize they contracted their infection from exposure to the water.
The Surfrider Foundation launched a website asking people to self-report beach pollution sickness, racking up more than 400 submissions since 2008.
It’s a fraction of the true picture, however. Los Angeles and Orange County beaches alone are estimated to have caused between 600,000 to 1.5 million gastrointestinal illnesses in a year, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology.
Swimmers are exposed to the bacteria by swallowing contaminated water, getting it on their skin, in their eyes or through an open wound. The EPA also has linked some cases to playing in the sand.
Rather than looking just at whether a beach is currently under advisory or closed, however, experts also suggest beachgoers check the history.
“People should really look at the long-term average rather than the individual value,” said Edward Whereat, a scientist at the University of Delaware’s pollution ecology laboratory. “There are trends that develop on what the average for that beach is. That’s really the likelihood of what encountering a problem would be.”
Beachgoers can check their local health department, signs at the beach, the Swim Guide — a website and app to find beaches safe for swimming — or Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card for the West Coast.
“Know before you go,” said Steve Fleischli, senior director of water initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “You should look up online and see how your local beach fares. There are plenty of clean beaches for people to enjoy, so there’s no reason you should have to swim in a polluted beach.”
Check out our data: github.com/GateHouseMedia/EPAbeaches