Your Day at the Beach Could Soon Lead to a Night at the Hospital

New proposals on pollution levels at beaches from the Environmental Protection Agency would allow one in every 28 visitors to get sick.


A new proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address pollution at U.S. beaches allows one in 28 people to get sick when they go out for a swim. Imagine a school field trip to the beach -- for every large conventional school bus, nearly three kids would be put at risk of getting an illness like diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting.

Now imagine if a restaurant was allowed to serve food that would make one in 28 people sick. The public wouldn't tolerate it. Yet the EPA somehow is considering allowing one in 28 swimmers to get sick at the beach. It's outrageous and a serious health risk that cannot and should not be ignored.

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 required the EPA to issue by 2005 recreational beach criteria "for the purpose of protecting human health" at coastal and Great Lake beaches. When EPA failed to meet this deadline, NRDC sued and secured a court order requiring EPA to follow the law. EPA's new proposal claims to do this, but it is far less protective of the public health than current science and good public policy dictate.

Just how did we get here?

The EPA says it is because the risks of highly credible gastrointestinal illnesses are acceptable at the levels of beach contamination it seeks to allow. These types of illnesses include vomiting, diarrhea with fever and stomachache, or nausea accompanied by a fever. At the same time, however, the EPA finds that 36 in 1,000 beachgoers (or one in 28) will suffer other types of gastrointestinal illnesses when they're exposed to the same level of contamination. These other types of illnesses include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomachache -- basically the same as the priority illnesses EPA is focused on, just minus the fever.

But if I had to choose between diarrhea alone or diarrhea with a fever, I would choose neither. And I bet most people would too. The EPA fails to address this devil's dilemma, while also failing to properly account for the other health outcomes beachgoers face, like rash, eye infections, and ear ailments.

So why is the EPA proposing to allow this distinction between illnesses? The EPA  says it is because following its recommendations won't cause any actual increase in public health risks; the level of allowable contamination really isn't changing, we just now know more about some of the illnesses at that level. But the EPA must address all known risks to human health. The EPA's proposal fails to do so as it sweeps the most fundamental and alarming point under the rug: knowingly allowing one in 28 people to get sick is not protecting public health, nor is it legal.

The EPA's proposal also allows water test results at beaches to be averaged over a period as long as 90 days and for one in every four samples to exceed safe levels before pollution reduction is required. States can always do more, and, thankfully, many already are. But the EPA's proposed approach could mask a serious pollution problem and expose families to an unnecessary risk of illness without any required cleanup. This is entirely incompatible with the Clean Water Act's goal of "fishable/swimmable" waters. Quite simply, no one swims, paddles, or fishes in "average" water. They come into contact with water in whatever condition they find it at that particular time.

The EPA has failed here. It has a responsibility to keep our waters healthy to ensure that we are too. Instead, the agency glosses over its own science by ignoring the known risks of getting certain illnesses, like diarrhea, from swimming in contaminated waters. The EPA must protect human health by adopting protective criteria for U.S. beaches. It should propose a national standard that protects far more than one in 28, and it should eliminate any use of the 90-day averaging period and any allowable exceedances. Because a day at the beach shouldn't lead to a night at the hospital. And sand in your shoes should be the worst thing you take home from a trip to the shore.

Image: justaa/Shutterstock.

This post also appears on NRDC's Switchboard, an Atlantic partner site.