A report by the Environment America Research and Policy Center, a branch of the group Environment America, published a report in July 2019 on tests for fecal bacteria done on 4,523 beach sites in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico in 2018.
More than half of all sites tested, 2,620, were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day in 2018, and 605 were potentially unsafe at least 25% of the days that sampling took place. Your first thought is that this Hint is going to include a lot of unpleasant facts. It is.
Sites were considered potentially unsafe if bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most protective “Beach Action Value” threshold. This is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 per 1,000 swimmers. Beach water is measured for E. coli and enterococcus bacterial breeds, common inhabitants of human and other animal guts, which contain trillions of microbes.
Every coastal and Great Lakes state and Puerto Rico sampling revealed unsafe levels of contamination in 2018.
Among West Coast beaches, 573 sites — or 67% of 850 tested sites — were unsafe for at least one day. Among 385 Gulf Coast sites, 329 — 85% — were unsafe at least one day.
Among East Coast beaches, 1,134 out of 2,373 sites, or 48% were unsafe.
Among Great Lakes beaches 418 of 558 tested sites were affected at least one day. The state of Delaware had the lowest percentage.
In Minneapolis this last week, three beaches were closed after three people reported illness after swimming. Tests showed elevated E. coli in all. This bacterium has shuttered half the city’s 12 public beaches this summer.
The sources of contaminated water blamed include rains that create heavier flow or runoff from drains and the abundance of pavement that doesn’t absorb and trap the water as natural vegetation does.
That’s why oases of plants are being installed in several neighborhoods. Industrial scale livestock operations are another major source of fecal bacteria in water, which gets washed into drainage systems into bodies of water.
Outdated sewage systems can be another source. And some boat owners illegally dump human waste into lakes or rivers.
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The main symptoms from the colon-derived or coliform bacteria are diarrhea and vomiting.
The E. coli strain found in the Nokomis beach closings was a vicious subtype, a Shiga-toxin producing variety. There are more than 700 E. coli types identified to date.
Coliform bacteria are not the only microbes that make swimmers sick. Others can include viruses, other bacteria, and some protozoans and parasites, single cell critters, like Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Giarda, and more. You’re not alone in the water. Let’s not forget the chemicals, discarded medicines, trash, plastic, etc. that are being thrown in our waters.
To quote one reporter who wrote about the study, “It’s time to take water pollution more seriously, and stop treating our bodies of water like giant toilet bowls.” A recent study in the Environmental Health journal found that about 90 million water recreatiwon illnesses occur annually, costing $2.2 billion to 3.7 billion per year. Other sources quote different numbers of cases.
In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed, with the goal of making recreational waters safe by 1983.
More than 60% of people older than 16 use water for non-motorized recreation. In so many places where corporate profit interests have been allowed preferential treatment, to the detriment of our water, land and air and population to benefit their pocketbooks, we have done a miserable job of fulfilling the letter of that law.
As the Forbes magazine author said about the study, “What have we ‘dung’ to our beaches?”
What we can do is obvious, and precisely stated in the new study. Prevent urban runoff with green infrastructure; prevent sewage pollution several ways; and prevent manure pollution from livestock, especially mega-farm operations of thousands of perpetually defecating creatures.
Can we do it when this administration’s EPA is trying to cancel 83 rules that currently protect our environment?
This may not seem like a very tasty topic, but as much as possible, this is a problem of our own making.