Are you Swimming in Fecal Matter?

Safe for Swimming?: Water Quality at Our Beaches examines popular swimming sites for dangerously high levels of fecal bacteria.

Contact with this unclean water—often contaminated by urban runoff or sewage overflows—can cause gastrointestinal illness, respiratory disease, ear and eye infections, and skin rash.

Each year, US beachgoers suffer from approximately 57 million cases of recreational waterborne illness.

The Clean Water Act, adopted in 1972 with overwhelming bi-partisan support, had the farsighted and righteous goal of making all our waterways safe for swimming. Yet 46 years later, all too often,

Americans visiting their favorite beach are met by an advisory warning that the water is unsafe for swimming. Even worse, in recent years millions of Americans have been sickened by swimming in

contaminated water.

An analysis of bacteria sampling data from beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico reveals that 2,627 beach sites – more than half of all sites tested – were potentially unsafe for swimming

on at least one day in 2018, and 610 sites were potentially unsafe at least 25 percent of the days that sampling took place. Sites were considered potentially unsafe if bacteria levels exceeded the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency’s most protective “Beach Action Value” threshold, which the EPA suggests states use as a “conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions,” and

is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 per 1,000 swimmers. (See Methodology for details.)

To keep our beaches safe for swimming and protect Americans’ health, policymakers should undertake efforts to prevent runoff pollution, including through the use of natural and green

infrastructure that absorb storm water onsite.

Fecal contamination makes beaches unsafe for swimming.

  • Human contact with the contaminated water indicated by bacteria testing can result in gastrointestinal illness as well as respiratory disease, ear and eye infections and skin rash.
  • Each year in the U.S., swimmers suffer from an estimated 57 million cases of recreational waterborne illness.
  • Primary sources of fecal contamination include urban runoff, sewage leaks and overflows, and industrial-scale livestock operations.

More than half of the thousands of beach sites sampled for bacteria across the country were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day in 2018.


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