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Swim at your own risk: Dirty water an issue at US beaches, report shows

A new report says 2011 saw the third-highest level of beach closures and advisories in two decades.
A new report says 2011 saw the third-highest level of beach closures and advisories in two decades.Reed Saxon / AP

Americans escaping the summer heat by taking a dip at their local beach might want to think twice.

Water pollution from untreated sewage and storm water runoff continue to be an issue at U.S. beaches, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental group. NRDC on Wednesday released "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," a report it has conducted for 22 consecutive years.

NRDC analyzed data collected in 2011 from more than 3,000 beaches nationwide, and found the third-highest level of beach closures and advisories in two decades -- slightly lower than the prior year. 

Two-thirds of those closings and advisories were caused by bacteria levels surpassing public health standards — bacteria likely from human or animal waste.

Louisiana fared poorly in the report, with 29 percent of the reported water samples violating standards. The NRDC study tested for bacteria and did not include other sources of contamination, such as oil or toxic algae.

The 15 beaches labeled “repeat offenders” by NRDC can be found in seven states: California, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin. Click here for a detailed list of repeat offenders. Stomach flu, skin rashes and pinkeye are among waterborne illnesses that swimmers can contract in polluted waters.

However, not all of the report's results are grim. The number of beaches that violate national recommended health standards remained stable at 8 percent — the same level as 2010.

Twelve beaches received a 5-star rating, indicating strong testing and safety practices, as well as low violation rates. California is home to three of them; the rest are found in Alabama, Deleware, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Texas. Click here for a detailed list of 5-star beaches.

Beachgoers can use an online map tool to search water quality themselves, but can also take precautions. NRDC recommends:

  • Choosing beaches away from urban areas and near open waters;
  • Staying away from pipes that drain storm water runoff;
  • Not swimming in cloudy or stinky water;
  • Keeping your head out of the water;
  • Avoid swimming for at least a day after heavy rains.

Beachgoers can also proactively protect themselves by being "good stewards," said Jon Devine, NRDC's senior water attorney. Picking up garbage, picking up after pets and not feeding the wildlife, he said, can help keep the nation's waters clean.

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