Most of the nation’s beach states may be using outdated health standards to decide whether it is safe to swim, particularly along the warm, beach-lined Southern coast. As an April 10th deadline approaches, seventy percent of coastal and Great Lakes states will not be using EPA-approved safety standards for beach water quality.
Recognizing beach water contamination as a serious public health threat, Congress unanimously passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (B.E.A.C.H.) Act four years ago. The Act required the nation’s beach states to use uniform health standards to monitor beach-water quality and to issue warnings or close beaches when the water exceeded EPA criteria for unsafe levels of contamination. The deadline for states to have those standards in place is April 10, 2004.
The delinquent coastal and Great Lakes states – Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin – have not made the required changes to their state laws.
Despite the fact that the “new” water quality criteria are nearly two decades old, and that four years have elapsed since the passage of the law requiring states to implement them, only nine (Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas and Virginia) of 30 beach states have managed to fully update their state rules.
States that fail to comply with the EPA recommendations for water safety face potential intervention by the agency, which could step in to set standards for the state, as well as the potential loss of grant money for beach monitoring – further compromising the state’s ability to protect swimmers from contamination.
"Meeting the EPA criteria is just a start," says Oceana’s Pollution Program Director Jackie Savitz. "States still have a long way to go to protect swimmers from coastal pollution. While the current criteria are far from perfect, using them is an important first step."
According to Dr. Robert Fischer, Head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, "swimming in water contaminated by human sewage entails a risk of acquiring a number of viral and bacterial infections, all of them unpleasant and some life-threatening." Exposed swimmers may contract illnesses ranging from mild viruses with flu-like symptoms to severe diseases, including Hepatitis A and E. coli known to cause kidney failure in children. The most frequent sources of beach-water contamination are urban runoff and sewer overflows; cruise ship pollution, agricultural runoff and isolated sewage spills can also contribute.
In 2002 more than 12,000 closings and advisories were recorded, the second highest number in 13 years. Complete data for 2003 are not yet available, but New Jersey registered 80 closings last summer, the most since 1988, and beaches were closed 1,079 times in Florida, a 220% jump from the 335 closings in 2002.
Savitz said the disregard some states have shown for the BEACH Act deadline is unacceptable. "They’ve had four years to adopt standards two decades old. It’s clearly not impossible and some states have done it, while others like New York, Rhode Island, Washington and Oregon are way behind. Citizens in those states ought to make sure this deadline doesn’t just float by; this should be a wakeup call to the remaining governors and legislators along the 70% of our coasts that are out of step."
To help states communicate information about beach water quality to the public, Oceana maintains an online Beach Alert Service with daily updates about beach closings (www.oceana.org – “Know Before You Go”). Users can also sign up to receive free automatic beach alerts whenever their favorite beaches close.