Headed to a beach this summer? If so, you’re probably not thinking about how wastewater gets drained, where medical waste gets dumped, or where cigarette butts and dog poop end up once they float down a storm drain.
We get it. We don’t want to think about animal waste — or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — when it’s time to splash in some waves either.
But the consequences of swimming in plastic debris, fecal matter, and other toxic bacteria and pollutants can make you or your loved ones sick. That’s why experts say checking on the cleanliness of the water at the beach you’re heading to is always a smart idea.
Not convinced yet? Well, the Surfrider Foundation tested water around the United States and found dangerous amounts of fecal contamination. In its 2022 report, the foundation revealed that out of 9,905 water samples, 19% were contaminated with fecal matter.
In 2021, the Environment America Research & Policy Center also analyzed if fecal bacteria levels surpassed the Environmental Protection Agency’s strict “Beach Action Value” — an estimated 32 illnesses per 1,000 swimmers.
They found “328 beaches were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one quarter of days.” In addition, “More than half of all the 3,166 coastal and Great Lakes beaches reviewed exceeded this threshold on at least one day tested in 2020.”
The Surfrider Foundation also found that annually, over 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage enter America’s waters due to sewage spills and infrastructure breakdowns. And then there’s the reality of rainwater moving human and animal waste into oceans, lakes, and rivers.
Rain Brings Toxic Runoff
Many people aren’t aware of the health impacts of getting in the water after it rains. Acute gastrointestinal problems are one of many health concerns that come with exposure to toxic runoff after a storm. Skin rashes, respiratory infections, ear infections, and red, infected eyes are also common.
The Surfrider Foundation found that “10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater runoff flow into U.S. waterways every year.”
According to Dr. Ian Young, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, people should not enter the water after a storm.
“If there’s a major rain event, within a day or two — probably not the best time to go,” Young tells Word In Black. “Usually, the level of contaminants will be higher, especially if there’s a nearby river or stream.”
This is why the California Department of Environmental Health recommends people stay out of the water for at least 72 hours after it rains.
However, some surfers say surf culture encourages folks to get in the water every day despite the health risks.
“Growing up around surfing, you are taught to go no matter what. That’s just part of the culture, especially if there are waves,” says Gabriella Angotti-Jones, a Black female surfer from San Clemente, California.
Angotti-Jones says she started surfing at 7-years-old but stopped after non-Black people continued to ask her racist questions — “like, ‘Oh, how’s your vacation going? Are you from here?’”
She found her way back to surfing three years ago. Since then, rain or shine, she’s out in the water.
But, this has had negative consequences on her health. Angotti-Jones became seriously ill from exposure to pathogens in the water. As a result, she experienced severe gastrointestinal problems that she says were “debilitating.”
Another worry: As climate change worsens, so will the number of hurricanes and days with heavy rain. With that comes more bacteria, and the risks of getting sick at the beach could be even higher.
An Increase of Flesh-Eating Bacteria
In early June, flesh-eating bacteria from decomposing Sargassum, a type of seaweed, was found on Florida beaches. The seaweed blooms are annual, but this year’s bloom stretches 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
When Sargassum washes up on shore and starts to rot, flesh-eating Vibrio bacteria begins to grow — and it turns out plastic makes it worse.
A recent study noted that “the interplay between Sargassum, plastic marine debris and Vibrio bacteria creates the perfect ‘pathogen’ storm.”
The study’s authors also wrote that these “pathogens have the unique ability to ‘stick’ to microplastics” and might be “adapting” to it.
Combine flesh-eating bacteria with water sports like swimming, jet skiing, scuba diving, and surfing, and the results can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 80,000 people get sick, and 100 die annually from exposure to Vibrio vulnificus.
No wonder researchers suggest outdoor enthusiasts check the water quality before going to a beach.
Is My Beach Clean?
The decision to open or close a beach due to water cleanliness is made by states, tribes, territories, and local governments. The Environmental Protection Agency suggests that people reach out to “your local health department or check with your state, tribe or territory beach contact” to determine whether the water’s safe to swim in.
There also may be local environmental organizations — like Heal the Bay in Los Angeles County — that regularly report on water cleanliness. “Usually, the public health authority of whatever city you are in will have a website,” Young says.
The bottom line, Young says, if that H2O looks “cloudy and you can’t see your feet, that’s a sign that there might be microbes and bacteria in the water.”
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