By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) – Every summer millions of American families head for beaches, but few stop to think of the possibility that the water they swim in may harbor enough bacteria to cause stomach flu and a host of other illnesses.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 10 percent of water quality samples collected from nearly 3,500 coastal and Great Lakes beaches in 2013 contained levels of harmful bacteria that exceeded “safe to swim” thresholds recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The findings – published on Wednesday in the NRDC’s 24th annual report on beach water quality – confirm that serious water pollution persists at many U.S. beaches, largely the result of stormwater runoff and sewage overflows that carry human and animal waste into waters where people swim, surf and sail.
“Too many people get sick when they go in the water,” said Steve Fleischli, NRDC water program director. The findings are little changed over the last five years of testing, he said.
The EPA encourages the issuing of advisories for beaches and lakes where water quality exceeds what it calls a “Beach Action Value,” a threshold model for assessing water quality.
“It is not a federal mandate at this point. It should be. But EPA is moving in the right direction,” said Fleischli.
Illnesses associated with polluted beach water include stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis. Children are especially vulnerable, as they tend to submerge their heads more often than adults and are more likely to swallow water when swimming, the report said.
One analysis found that fecal contamination at Los Angeles and Orange County beaches causes between 627,800 and 1,479,200 excess gastrointestinal illnesses each year, the NRDC said.
The report lists both some “superstar” beaches, that have routinely met water quality standards over the last five years, and “repeat offenders,” which are beaches showing persistent contamination problems, according to the NRDC.
Among the superstars: Gulf Shores Public Beach in Alabama; Tybee Island North in Georgia; Back Bay Beach in Virginia; and Po’ipu Beach Park in Kauai, Hawaii.
The list of beaches with repeated contamination problems included seven in Ohio; three in New York; two in Indiana; and one each in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wisconsin, the report said.
(Reporting By Carey Gillam and Steve Orlofsky)