Over the many years which we foolishly allowed our environment
to be used as a dumping ground, our beaches took the brunt of
the punishment. By the end of the 1960s, many U.S. beaches had
become both unswimmable and unable to sustain the aquatic and
other species that need healthy beach habitats to survive and
This year, millions of us in America will go to our favorite
beaches along rivers, lakes, and coastlines. For some, these
trips will be less enjoyable because of pollution—some of it
highly visible, some not.
The highly visible pollution of oil spills and bottles, cans,
and cigarette butts littering our beaches is unpleasant to look
at and is harmful to wildlife. The less visible or invisible
pollution can truly be a witch’s brew.
The chief culprit in human illness incurred while swimming
at the beach are the infectious and toxic organisms that flow
into our fresh and coastal beach waters when sewer systems overflow,
and the untreated human waste mixes in with the water.
Along with sewage overflows, we also have pollution from diffuse
run-off or ‘non-point sources’ such as fertilizers and pesticides
from households and farmlands, and gasoline and oil from streets
and parking lots. All of this flows down sewers into waters
where we swim.
Untreated sewage and fertilizers and pesticides in the water
can make you very sick, very quickly, and can ruin an otherwise
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to
reduce both types of pollution, but this summer, it is important
for all of us to know what we can do to protect ourselves and
our families at the beach.
Micro-organisms are not visible to the eye, but, thanks to
a new law, the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal
Health (BEACH) Act of 2000, information on local beaches is
now more available and accessible than ever before.
Before you go to the beach, visit the EPA’s Beach Watch Web
site at http://www. epa.gov/OST/beaches to check on the environmental
condition of the beach you plan to visit. (Alternatively, you
can call the public health department at your destination.)
Under the BEACH Act, th EPA is providing $10 million to the
states to monitor the condition of state waters and make that
information available to the public.
When public health or environmental officials determine that
the water is contaminated, they may either post warnings that
the water is not safe for swimming, or close the beach for some
period of time.
If you are concerned about raw sewage being released into America’s
waters, please help us by asking authorities if they are monitoring
waters at the beaches where you live or visit and for a common
sense explanation of the results of those tests.
If you think that the water may be contaminated, or if you
have become sick within a few hours after swimming, please tell
the local public health and/ or environmental authorities. It
is very important that they be quickly informed so that they
can head off any outbreak of disease and protect especially
The key, of course, is to prevent such pollution from occurring
in the first place. First, find out if the local wastewater
treatment plants have had any sewer overflows and where that
sewage goes if it happens. Tell local public health and environmental
officials what you have found.
If a beach monitoring program does not yet exist for those
places where you swim, get involved! Tell your friends, neighbors,
and elected or appointed officials how important this issue
is and that EPA is providing grants to the states specifically
for this purpose. Help them to set up a beach water quality
monitoring and protection program.
You or someone you hold dear will be at the beach this summer.
Let’s work together to ensure that a trip to the beach isn’t
followed by a trip to the doctor or the emergency room.