Beach Bums: Test the Waters Before Plunging In

Study examines causes of beach pollution and where and how often it's monitored

"Let's go to the beach!" To many Americans, the call is familiar this time of year. But before you grab your swimsuit and sun glasses, you may want to consider how clean your beach is.

A recent study on beaches says there could be more to seawater than just salt. The report raises a timely question: Is your beach regularly monitored for pollution?

"Mmmm. I don't know," says Stephen Coll, shrugging his sunscreen-basted shoulders as he lounges on his towel at Boston's Revere Beach. "Why do you ask?"

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study - "Testing The Waters: How Does Your Vacation Beach Rate?" - reports that beaches around the country were closed to swimmers or posted with health warnings at least 2,500 times last year. Each day that a beach was closed or posted with a warning counted as one time.

The report states that the figure would be much higher if beaches such as Revere, for instance, were monitored weekly for pollution. In fact, most beaches do not have a weekly testing policy.

The study was based on responses from state and local public health agencies along the 5,870-mile American coastline as well as the Great Lakes. It also found that:

* The primary cause of beach closings is pollution runoff. At the top of the list was runoff from fertilizers and chemicals from rural areas. Sewage overflows and storm drains emptying their urban fill into the seas were a close second. Other causes included oil and litter from boating.

* Eight states do not regularly monitor pollution on their beaches: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington.

* Seven states comprehensively monitor all their beaches: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Ohio. When pollution is detected, the beach is closed or warnings are posted.

"If we gave a thumbs down to a beach [in the study] it does not mean it's a polluted beach," says Sarah Chasis, NRDC Coastal Program director. "We wanted to educate consumers about whether their favorite vacation beach monitors and notifies the public when the water is polluted." (See chart below.)

Connecticut and New Jersey received commendable mention because they regularly tested their waters - usually once a week - and closed beaches or put up health warnings.

Meanwhile, officials at Myrtle Beach, S.C., are not pleased at being placed on the report's list of "beach bums" - a roster of beaches with over 1 million visitors that do not perform frequent tests for pollution. James Ewing, Myrtle Beach's director of public health, says the city tests the waters after each rainfall as well as randomly. He says the approach is "practical" since the water quality is "very good."

"On the July 4th weekend, we had over half-a-million visitors," he says. "As far as I know, nobody got sick."

Nevertheless, Myrtle Beach is in the process of completing a comprehensive study to determine whether tests should be "bimonthly, biweekly, or even weekly."

The disagreement in uniform pollution standards is unlikely to ebb anytime soon. First, every beach is not exposed to the same dangers. Also, routine sampling varies from county to county, and health standards vary from state to state. However, environmental groups and some politicians are pushing towards legislating consistent standards. This year, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey introduced legislation that would establish uniform rules for beach monitoring and closures.

A similar measure in the California legislature would establish provisions for posting warning signs, and create a 24-hour hotline on beach-water conditions.

The tide toward stricter review of water quality started in 1988 when medical wastes washed ashore on the East Coast, forcing the closure of beaches in New York and New Jersey.

Beach goers need to be more informed of seaside troubles beyond dodging jellyfish, says Mr. Pallone. "People have the right to know that the waters they and their families are swimming in are safe."

According to the NRDC study, exposure to beach water pollution doesn't cause severe illness or life-threatening danger but could cause discomfort and lost work days.

Here's how beaches get polluted: Rain makes the air clean but waters dirty. From roof tops and roadsides, rainwater collects urban and rural dirt and unloads them into the seas. The Washington D.C.-based group suggests some precautions:

* On a rainy day avoid beaches with storm drains close to the swimming area.

* Beaches near open ocean or away from urban areas generally pose less of a health risk.

* Get familiar with the water quality and pollution testing practices of your local beaches.

* When in doubt about the water quality, wade or bathe without submerging your head.

The risks are avoidable. Here's what you can do to help:

* Conserve water. Don't let water run unnecessarily when brushing your teeth or during other household activities.

* Use natural fertilizers such as compost for gardens. Monitor your septic systems yearly.

* Pay special attention to safely disposing household toxic wastes and used motor oil.

* When walking your pets, be sure to clean up after them.

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