I had a harrowing day at the beach once. When I was 5 years old my family took me to Galveston . The movie Jaws had just opened and everyone was a little on edge. It was toward the end of the day though when all hell broke loose. Out of the quiet hypnotic wave sounds burst a blood-curdling scream. “Shark! AHHhhhhh!!” I looked up from my crooked sand castle and saw my father practically running on top of the water. When he got to shore, it became apparent that the shark was in fact a jellyfish and not a very big one. My uncle’s gave him the most hilarious ribbing for the rest of the evening. This was the worst it ever got on the beach for me. Nowadays though, the thing that gets you is hard to see.
Just ask the Holmes’. Ten weeks after they spent a day at Galveston beach, their 9 year old daughter Megan came down with post-infectious gastroparesis. Now Megan will have memories of her gall-bladder surgery, emergency room visits, and living with a feeding tube. She is not alone though. Many American children have been exposed to harmful life-threatening chemicals and biological pathogens at the beach.
According to the new NRDC* report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” the number of no-swim days caused by stormwater more than doubled from the year before. This led to “sewage spills and overflows causing 1,301 beach closings and advisory days in 2006, an increase of 402 days from 2005.” What does this statistic really say? Beaches had to be closed because there was feces on the beach.
The blame lies in our aging sewage systems and poorly designed storm run-off structures. Combine that with unrestrained development of wetlands, irresponsible sprawl on the coasts, and climate changes and you have got a formula for disease. Who suffers? Those who are already at increased risk for infection: children, the elderly, and the immune- compromised (cancer patients, people with organ transplants, HIV+, and others). Risks include gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis**, respiratory ailments among other health problems.
“Families can’t use the beaches in their own communities because they are polluted. Kids are getting sick – all because of sewage and contaminated runoff from outdated, under-funded treatment systems,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s water program. It begs the question: Are we budget cutting ourselves to death?
Before swearing off beaches forever, you should know that all is not lost. The Beach Protection Act of 2007 (H.R. 2537/S. 1506) introduced in May will reauthorize the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) of 2000. This bill will mandate rapid testing methods that can detect beach water contamination in just two hours or less as well as increase funding levels for source tracking and pollution prevention.
NRDC is offering beachgoers an opportunity to discuss their personal Beach Bums (bad bad beach!) and Beach Buddies (yeah, good beach!). To post a comment, visit NRDC's new Your Oceans website, where you can find fun summer tips for being safe and healthy while at the beach.
*NRDC is a member organization of the Gulf Restoration Network!
**Hepatitis C is not considered a risk factor as it is only transmitted through direct contact with infected blood.
Casey DeMoss Roberts is the Special Projects Coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network