Before you pick a beach to hit over the holiday weekend, it might be worth thinking about the quality of the water you plan to swim in, suggests a new report by the National Resources Defense Council.
After analyzing the results of water samples taken last year at more than 3,000 beaches from coast to coast and in-between, the NRDC concluded that serious contamination continues to plague beaches around the country.
In 2010, both coastal and Great Lake beaches were closed nearly 30 percent more often than in 2009, the study found, mostly because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and a surge in rainy weather that led to elevated bacteria levels. Overall, 8 percent of tested water samples exceeded public health standards last year -- about the same as the year before.
When contamination levels get too high, swimmers may develop gastrointestinal illnesses, skin rashes, pinkeye and other health problems. And while risks are greatest for children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems, it can be helpful for all beach-goers to keep an eye on water quality reports, said David Beckman, director of the NRDC's water program in Los Angeles.
Many thousands of illnesses a year could be spared via cleaner swimming water, he said. Water contamination also has a powerful economic impact as sick people miss work and tourists avoid dirty beaches.
"The good news is that the problem doesn't appear to be getting significantly worse, but we've stabilized at a level of unacceptably high pollution," Beckman said. "Even the best beaches can have something unexpected happen."
This year's "Testing the Waters" report was the 21st in an annual effort by the NRDC to encourage better monitoring and to protect people from pollution at beaches around the United States. For the 2010 study, researchers collected data on more than 130,000 samples of water from more than 3,000 beach segments on both coasts and around the Great Lakes.
The biggest sources of contamination, according to the report, are sewage pipes and stormwater runoff that dump fecal waste, oil and other kinds of pollution into lakes and oceans. There were more than 24,000 beach closings and advisories last year -- the second highest number in the last two decades.
Some parts of the country fared better than others. Great Lakes Beaches did the worst, with 15 percent of samples containing more contamination than is allowable by national water quality standards. The Southeast did best, with just 4 percent of samples exceeding standards. The Northeast, West, and Gulf Coast were all in the middle at about 7 or 8 percent.
Louisiana had the highest rates of contamination at its beaches, with 37 percent of samples failing quality tests, mostly due to the oil spill. Ohio and Indiana followed at rates of 21 and 16 percent. New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Hawaii and Delaware were the most consistently clean -- all showing excessive levels of contamination just 3 percent of the time or less.
The NRDC also rated specific beaches by evaluating trends in water quality alongside each community's track record for regular monitoring and prompt notification of the public about health hazards. Based on the system, the report awarded "Superstar Beach" status to beaches that were close to perfect for the past three years in a row.
Four beaches made the list: Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach in Sussex County, Delaware; Park Point Lafayette Community Club Beach in St. Louis County, Minnesota; and Hampton Beach State Park in Rockingham County, New Hampshire.
On the other hand, the study identified 10 beaches that have failed water quality tests more than 25 percent of the time for the past five years in a row. That list included parts of Avalon Beach and all of Cabrillo Beach Station in Los Angeles County; parts of Dohoney State Beach in Orange County; North Point Marina North Beach in Illinois; Beachwood Beach West in New Jersey; Florida's Keaton Beach, and four beaches in Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.
One goal of the NRDC's annual report, Beckman said, is to encourage communities to invest in infrastructure that would limit the amount of contaminated water that ends up in popular swimming areas. Simple measures can make a big difference and they don't have to cost much. Ideas include fixing old, leaky sewage pipes and adding grass around parking lots to absorb rainwater.
The report also emphasizes the need for more rapid monitoring techniques, added Helena Solo-Gabriele, an environmental engineer at the University of Miami in Florida. With current methods that simply allow bacteria in water sample to grow, there is a daylong delay between testing and getting results.
"So, by the time you realize you should close the beach, it's been open for 24 hours," she said. "If you take another sample and it's clean, you might keep it closed on a day when it should be open."
Solo-Gabriele is looking forward to October 2012, when the Environmental Protection Agency plans to release new rules and guidelines for beach monitoring. Part of the change, she suspects, will be a switch to newer techniques that increase the speed of multiplication among bacterial DNA and deliver results in just four hours.
In the meantime, beachgoers can look online for water quality reports, including at the NRDC's website. Once you're settled on the sand, don't swim near a storm drain. If the water looks or smells funny, don't swim in it. Wash your hands before you dive into your picnic. And shower when you get home.
"There are benefits to enjoying the beach and there are some incremental risks," Solo-Gabriele said. "I wouldn't avoid the beach. I would continue going."