Photo: Waste dumping into ocean

Blackened wastewater flows from a drainpipe into the ocean. Surveys of ocean water find staggering amounts of human sewage, domestic wastewater, factory outflow, farm chemical runoff, oil spills, and nuclear waste from power plants.

Photograph by Michael Goodman/Getty Images

Written by Brian O'Connor

Republished from the pages of The Green Guide

Last April Waikiki beachgoers were exposed to the flesh-eating bacteria Vibrio vulnificus after a canal brought contaminated water from a municipal sewage tank to the beachfront. The Waikiki bacteria outbreak, along with outbreaks of E. coli at beaches around the country, have prompted many people to question the quality of their beaches and demand closer monitoring of beach quality.

The Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) 2005 national water quality survey indicates that some beaches yield high levels of bacteria as more beaches nationwide begin testing. A report released by the NRDC found that in 2004 elevated bacteria levels accounted for 85 percent of closure or advisory days nationwide. Storm water runoff and sewage caused 4,144 and 1,319 days, respectively. In total, beach closures and advisories nationwide jumped to almost 20,000 days, 9 percent more than the previous year.

And even beaches regarded as safe can hold startlingly high levels of E. coli and enterococci, as Jennifer Jay, professor of engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, found in a study of bacteria on the top layer of sand along Santa Monica's beaches. These bacteria strains often indicate other harmful contaminants, according to Jay. State and local attempts to monitor beach conditions frequently overlook beach sand, which may hold more contaminants than the water.

Although very few beach closures involve bacteria as hazardous as the strain found in Hawaii, beachgoers should check reports of beach closures. For recent beach closings and info on how to find out if your favorite swimming spot is currently home to unsafe levels of bacteria, check the NRDC and Environmental Protection Agency websites.

Beach Tips

  • Shower after visiting the beach.
  • Disinfect cuts or abrasions to avoid infection.
  • Check those with suppressed immune systems for cuts both before and after swimming.
  • Visit Earth911 online for information on current beach conditions.
  • To protect your beach, contact the Surfrider Foundation.
  • Consider receiving a hepatitis A vaccination to guard against hepatitis strains at beaches.

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