According to a new U.S. federal report, pollution at the nation's 3,500 ocean, lake and bay beaches caused more than 25,000 closing or swimming advisory days last year. This is 28 percent more than in 2005, and the highest number in the 17 years that records have been kept.
According to experts, the prime culprit is storm water runoff, which carries pollutants into the water. This accounts for 10,000 of the closings — twice the number of a year before, says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in its yearly report "Testing the Waters".
Another 1,300 days were attributed to sewage spills and overflows. The rest of the closings and advisory days were based on fecal contamination, the sources of which could not be determined.
"Most waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States occur during the summer, when Americans are most likely to be exposed to contaminated beach water. Experts estimate that as many as 7 million Americans get sick every year from drinking or swimming in water contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites."
Experts opine that most illnesses are never reported. Those at highest risk are small children, pregnant women, cancer patients and others whose immune systems are weak or compromised. "Children under the age of 9 had more reports of diarrhea and vomiting from exposure to waterborne parasites than any other age group," the NRDC report added.
Six Mission Bay beaches in San Diego had conducted another study during the summer of 2003.
The study found skin rash and diarrhea to be consistently significantly elevated in swimmers compared to non-swimmers. For diarrhea, this risk was strongest among children 5 to 12 years old, with more getting sick with increased degree of water contact: an estimated 27 cases per 1,000 among children with any water contact, 32 cases among those with facial contact with the water, and 59 cases among those who swallowed water.
In an environmental group's annual survey of America's beaches, Brevard's surf ranked among the nation's cleanest for the second consecutive year.
But surfers such as Greg Gordon still wonder how much wastewater escapes undetected from septic tanks and sewage plants on the beachside and the cruise ships that head out to sea from Port Canaveral.
"Generally, our county is a lot less polluted," says the Cocoa Beach teacher and member of the Sebastian Inlet chapter of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation. "But we do have members that report ear, nose and throat infections."
Perhaps most troubling in the NRDC report was the conclusion that "most authorities are not even attempting to identify pollution sources, much less control them."
The NRDC is now pushing for passage of the Beach Protection Act of 2007, to double the federal funds available for grants that can be used to identify sources of pollution.
It also called for updating water quality standards and tests for pathogens.