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Half of America's beaches contain alarming levels of fecal contamination

In a stark revelation that highlights the polluted state of U.S. coastlines, a recent report by Environment America states that over half of the country’s beaches contained alarming levels of fecal contamination last year. This pollution could put millions of beachgoers at risk every year.

Environment America, a Colorado-based environmental advocacy organization, has released their annual “Safe for Swimming?” report. The experts found that, in 2022, an astonishing 55 percent of tested US beaches contained waters deemed unsafe for swimming on at least one day. 

The unsettling statistic is comparable to the team’s findings from previous years – 53 percent in 2020 and 56 percent in 2019. The results indicate that fecal contamination is a persistent problem that is not seeing significant improvement.

Worst offenders

The Southern states, namely Florida, Texas, and Louisiana, proved to be the worst offenders. Up to 84 percent of their beaches experienced at least one day in 2022 where the water was contaminated with fecal matter. 

On the West Coast, California, Oregon, and Washington had 70 percent of their beaches polluted at least once last year. Not far behind were beaches surrounding the Great Lakes, with 63 percent reporting fecal contamination at least once in 2022.

Bold action is needed

John Rumpler, clean water program director at Environment America and leader of the report, voiced concern over the situation. 

“What we CAN say is that several factors all mean that this beach pollution is likely to continue and perhaps get worse unless bold action is taken to address it,” said Rumpler.

“While the data do not allow us to say whether beach pollution is worse now than in some prior years, there are several troubling trends that increase the likelihood of beach pollution.”

Potential health issues

With Americans making around 400 million visits to the beach each year, according to The United States Lifesaving Association, the issue could lead to an array of health problems. Individuals who swim in sewage-contaminated water are at risk of illness ranging from gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting, to more serious infections.

The fecal matter that leads to this pollution generally enters the sea either through rainwater, causing drains and sewage systems to overflow, or via rivers that pick up manure from industrial farms. 

Issue remains unaddressed 

Despite Congress allocating $11.7 billion for repairs to sewage systems and construction of new stormwater drainage systems in 2021, the issue remains as yet largely unaddressed. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately $271 billion is required to adequately address the problem.

Alarmingly, the report also stated that Oregon had the most polluted beaches in the country, with half of its counties – three of six – having beaches that were too dirty for swimming for up to a year. The environmental advocacy groups place the blame squarely on the state’s farming practices, which have been under the EPA’s scrutiny for years.

By contrast, Alaska and Hawaii reported the least pollution, with only 24 percent of their beaches reporting unsafe levels of pollution at least once a year. 

Crisis mitigation 

To mitigate this looming crisis, Environment America suggests bolstering investment in systems designed to prevent or reduce urban runoff. This may involve introducing features like permeable pavements, adding more green spaces, and installing “green roofs” in neighborhoods. 

Additionally, it is crucial to repair and modernize sewage systems to prevent them from overflowing and polluting waterways. 

The report also highlighted the importance of safeguarding wetlands, which can help reduce contamination by absorbing flood waters and filtering out pollutants.

Overall, this report has shed light on an increasingly pressing issue, one that calls for immediate action to protect not only the environment but also public health. If left unaddressed, these troubling trends could pose increasingly severe challenges for the nation’s beachgoers and aquatic wildlife.

More about beach pollution

Beach pollution refers to the contamination or degradation of the coastal environment, including the water, sand, and air. This pollution can come from a variety of sources and can seriously affect both human health and the health of coastal and marine ecosystems. Here are some of the major types of beach pollution:

Litter and marine debris

This includes items such as plastic bags, bottles, cans, balloons, straws, and fishing nets. These items can be harmful or even fatal to wildlife if they are ingested or if animals become entangled in them. They can also make the beach environment unpleasant for people. Over time, plastics break down into smaller pieces known as microplastics, which can be ingested by marine animals and can enter the food chain.

Oil spills

Oil spills can have devastating effects on the environment. They coat the feathers of birds and the fur of marine mammals, reducing their ability to maintain body temperature and often leading to death. Oil also smothers fish and shellfish and can contaminate their habitats and food sources.

Sewage and wastewater discharge

If improperly treated sewage or runoff containing fertilizers and pesticides enters coastal waters, it can lead to harmful algal blooms and areas of low oxygen known as dead zones. This type of pollution can also make the water unsafe for swimming and other recreational activities.

Chemical pollution

This includes things like heavy metals, PCBs, and other toxic substances that can accumulate in the bodies of marine animals, with harmful effects.

Erosion and sedimentation

Construction, deforestation, and other land-use changes can lead to increased erosion and the deposition of sediment on beaches, which can harm marine habitats and alter beach profiles.

What is fecal contamination? 

Fecal contamination refers to the presence of microorganisms in the environment due to fecal matter from humans or animals. It is a major health concern because feces can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause diseases.

For instance, E. coli and Salmonella, two common bacteria found in fecal matter, can cause serious gastrointestinal diseases if ingested. 

Fecal contamination can occur in various settings, such as water bodies, soil, food, and surfaces that come in contact with fecal matter. Contaminated water and food are common sources of gastrointestinal diseases like diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis.


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