Published July 16, 2013
In 2012, 40 percent of the United States' coastal beaches that are monitored had at least one advisory or closing due to unsafe water quality, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
This low water quality is due to a variety of factors, the most common being pollution from run-off rainwater and untreated sewage, which usually precedes a storm or heavy rainfall. These pollutants also bring with them disease-stricken pathogens as they flow into our oceans, lakes, rivers and streams.
Swimming in polluted water can cause an array of illnesses from the stomach flu to even sicknesses as serious as hepatitis.
"Storms are quite often associated with polluted run-off," said Jon Devine, Senior Attorney in the Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or the NRDC.
During and after a storm, the storm water from cities and suburbs flows into the nearest body of water.
"When the cause of pollution is known, a vast majority of the time it is from urban and suburban rainwater from streets, parking lots and storm water run-off," said Devine. Storm water coming from highly populated areas is typically untreated and carries with it sewage, trash, wildlife waste and other pollutants.
According to a study done by PhD researchers Frank C. Curriero and Jonathan A. Patz from The Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, Joan Rose from the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, Fla., and PhD Subhash Lele with the University of Alberta, there is a statistically significant association between rainfall and disease in the United States.
Their findings showed that 51 percent of waterborne disease outbreaks preceded precipitation events and outbreaks due to water contamination showed the strongest association with extreme precipitation during the month of the outbreak.
Supporting this research, the EPA reported that New York and Connecticut issued fewer beach advisories last summer than in 2011, the year that Hurricane Irene hit.
Already this summer, some of the most popular beaches in the U.S. including, Atlantic City, N.J., Long Beach, N.Y., Ocean City, Md., and Tampa and Key West, Fla., have seen almost double the amount of normal rainfall if not more from June 1 to July 11, 2013, according to data from AccuWeather Meteorologist Brian Edwards.
After periods of heavy rain like the cities listed above or after storms, like Hurricane Irene especially, the large amounts of precipitation can create an excess of run-off water that then enters the local bodies of water. These run-off waters transport along with them parasites.
When present in high quantities these parasites make beach waters unsafe for swimmers' health. It is in these cases that beaches are forced to issue advisories or even close as they become unsafe for the health of swimmers.
"Dangerous things in the water come from human and animal waste," Devine told AccuWeather.com.
Swimmers and beach-goers with compromised immune systems such as children and the elderly are the most at risk for contracting waterborne illnesses from contaminated water. While most of the time these illnesses are minor, "they can range from annoying to serious," said Devine.
The most common sicknesses associated with swimming in polluted water are pink eye, nose, ear, eye and throat infections, the stomach flu and skin rashes, according to the EPA. However, long-term serious ailments can also be contracted depending upon the amount of exposure to highly polluted waters, those include, hepatitis and typhoid fever.
Waterbourne diseases, other than making people ill, could also put the U.S. in more debt and harm the economy. According to the Center for Disease Control and research by the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Disease, hospitalizations for three common waterborne diseases could cost the government up to $539 million each year.
To battle these statistics, since 2000 the BEACH Act has, or The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health, has been in effect. This act authorized the EPA to give grants to coastal states to monitor beaches for harmful bacteria and notify the public when they are at risk.
In addition, the EPA is currently revising and developing news rules for monitoring beach pollution in an attempt to more closely monitor water quality, hopefully helping to decrease waterborne illness from pollution as a result.
However, in the meantime, there are things that the general public can do to help, too.
"Don't feed the gulls and other wildlife while on the beach and clean up after your pets," said Devine. "Avoid swimming in contaminated water by looking at the NRDC's and EPA's advisories along with your local authorities and pay attention to signs on the beach."