Beachgoers will be told more about whether it's safe to go in the water under a court settlement between environmentalists and the EPA.
The settlement requires the Environmental Protection Agency to develop criteria by 2012 to protect the public against a wider range of potential health hazards from ocean swimming than provided by existing standards.
Currently EPA criteria for the safety of ocean water is based on the likelihood of contracting gastrointestinal ailments.
The settlement requires EPA to base its criteria on more illnesses, including hepatitis, skin rashes, ear infections and pink eye. EPA will also have to deliver results of sea-water tests the same day they're done, so the public can have more timely and accurate information.
"The new studies will have to look at the whole range of how people get sick, which will lead to stricter and more protective criteria," Aaron Colangelo, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview Wednesday. "People can be more confident when they take their family to the beach that when they say it's safe, it's safe."
EPA has not updated ocean pollution criteria since 1986. The NRDC sued EPA over the issue in 2006 after the agency failed to meet congressionally mandated deadlines to do so. The settlement was filed Friday in federal court in Los Angeles.
EPA said it would cost about $14 million to conduct all the necessary studies to develop the new criteria. EPA will also be required to study the health risks posed by storm water runoff, the biggest known source of beach pollution.
"Sound science and partnerships are key to protecting public health at America's beaches," Benjamin Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water, said in a statement. "This agreement should help reduce litigation and increase collaboration."
While EPA develops the criteria for whether sea water is deemed safe or not, states and local jurisdictions make their own decisions about how and when to post warnings and close beaches, based on the EPA criteria. Testing is done by local jurisdictions and sometimes even volunteers and usually happens about once a week.
Announcement of the settlement follows publication of the NRDC's 18th annual beach water quality report, which found that in 2007 U.S. ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches logged more than 20,000 closing and advisory days, the second-highest number ever.