Green Outlook: Swimming our dirty waters


With the swimming beaches of four Gulf states — Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida — fouled for the foreseeable future by the BP oil spill, many American families are likely to be re-evaluating their summer vacation plans.

Unfortunately, many other U.S. beaches that are touted as clean also are polluted, and could threaten your health. “It’s a chronic condition of coastal life,” says Dr. Mark Rennaker, a California doctor who regularly treats swimmers and surfers for sinus, lung, eye and ear infections, among other waterborne ailments.

Health advisories and beach closings for U.S. oceans, bays and the Great Lakes topped 20,000 for the fourth year running, reports the Natural Resource Defense Council in its most recent annual report on vacation beach-water quality. (

Add to that a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that one in eight U.S. public swimming pools were shut down temporarily because of dirty water or other problems, including missing safety equipment. Kiddie pools were the germiest, often improperly chlorinated and laden with fecal matter.

Our public waters grow ever dirtier. Infections resulting from a day at the beach have increased steadily for decades — even though such illnesses are seriously underreported because people rarely associate a swim with sickness that appears days or weeks later.

Data also shows that up to 10 percent of people who jump into the Great Lakes this year will likely end up in bed or the emergency room. Swimming in bacteria, parasite or virus-laden water can transmit anything from pink eye to dysentery and respiratory infections to hepatitis or meningitis.

Stormwater was the culprit in most swimming-related disease incidents that could be linked to a pollution source, says NRDC, highlighting poor management of both human and animal waste in communities across the nation.

Summer thunderstorms flush huge amounts of feces and bacteria into waterways. That’s because runoff and sewage are often routed through the same pipes in many U.S. cities. These “combined sewers” work fine in dry weather when sewage treatment plants can handle the load. But with a hard downpour, runoff and sewage bypass treatment plants and gush into rivers and oceans. Beach closings result, though not as often as they should.

In cities with aging sewage treatment systems — places such as New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago — nearly every rainfall overwhelms the system. “After a hard rain, the human excrement of roughly 40-million Americans in 772 communities in 31 states flows untreated straight out the pipe into America’s rivers, lakes and bays,” writes Andrew Willner, former director of NY/NJ Baykeeper.

Here’s another troubling wrinkle: 13,000 annual beach closings were attributed to “unknown sources of pollution.” That’s because stormwater holds more than sewage. It’s a soup of trash, oil, asbestos, lead, cadmium and other heavy metals coming from roofs, streets and industrial sites, as well as pesticides from industrial farms and backyards. What these waterborne toxins do to swimmers, especially vulnerable children, is unknown.

Clearly water quality is in crisis: A 2002 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report found that 45 percent of our waterways are too polluted for swimming or fishing.

Federal public-health standards and most state laws regarding swimmable waters urgently need to be updated. Unfortunately, notes Dr. Rennaker, our antiquated water-testing policies are fixated on “fear of feces.” Testing should now be expanded to address a wide range of waterborne illnesses, including disease-causing microbes, toxic chemicals and red-tide outbreaks that sicken people and kill sea life.

One place to start cleanup is with factory farms that produce as much sewage as small cities, but are currently exempt from serious federal regulation. Urban sewage systems must also be upgraded and the combined-sewer problem solved.

The Senate should pass the Clean Coastal Environment and Public Health Act, providing funds to track down polluters. (The House has already approved the bill.) EPA must step up enforcement, and the corrupt U.S. Minerals Management Service — with its record of handing out oil-drilling permits without environmental oversight — must be reformed.

Offshore oil-drilling regulations, especially for deepwater rigs, must be upgraded. Even rising economic powers like Brazil require emergency remote-control shutoff switches on drilling rigs — a $500,000 device not required by law in the United States that would have likely prevented the BP disaster.

America’s polluted waters aren’t just a problem in the highly visible Gulf. They are a nationwide disgrace demanding a comprehensive solution, one that involves all levels of government and that places public health above corporate interests. There’s no reason why you or your kids should be sickened by a day at the beach.

© 2010

Sharon Guynup’s writing has been published by The New York Times Syndicate, Popular Science,, The Boston Globe and other publications.

(Publisher Mark Segal’s column will return next week.)