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Over half of US beaches have potentially unsafe levels of fecal matter

A new study found that 55% of 3,192 beaches tested in 2022 had at least one day in which fecal contamination reached potentially unsafe levels.
Over half of US beaches have potentially unsafe levels of fecal matter
Posted at 1:21 PM, Jul 12, 2023

As the summer sun sends temperatures soaring across the United State, more Americans are headed to the beach to cool off. But researchers say there's one sickening thing you should be aware of before you dive into the water: Fecal contamination.

A new report by the climate action group Environment America found that 55% of the more than 3,100 beaches it tested last year experienced at least one day in which fecal contamination reached "potentially unsafe levels." Additionally, about one in nine beaches nationwide had unsafe levels of contamination on at least 25% of the days they were tested.

Even more repulsive, American shores are being polluted with both human and animal waste from sewage overflows, stormwater runoff,  and manure from industrial livestock operations.

By region, the Gulf Coast had the most contaminated shores, with nine in ten beaches tested failing to meet sanitation standards. West Coast and Great Lakes beaches were the second and third most unsanitary.

Louisiana and Pennsylvania were among the worst beaches in the nation, with 100% of beaches tested being unsanitary.

The report cites sprawling development of parking lots, roads and homes near water, which increases the flow of polluted stormwater into rivers, bays and coastal waters. Outdated and deteriorating sewage systems are also to blame, with many discharging raw sewage directly into nearby waterway during heavy rains.

Swimming in contaminated waters can lead to gastrointestinal illnesses, as well as respiratory disease, ear and eye infection, and skin problems. Researchers estimate there are roughly 57 million cases of waterborne illness each year related to swimming in polluted waters. A vast majority of those go unreported. 

Contaminated water can also trigger health warnings that lead to beach closures, interfering with people's ability to enjoy the sand and water.

"There were more than 8,700 health warnings or closures at U.S. coastal and Great Lakes beaches in 2022," the report states, "affecting 1 out of every 12 swimming days."

To address the issue, the bipartisan infrastructure law that was passed by Congress in 2021 provided $11.7 billion for sewage and stormwater projects. However, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates it would need closer to $271 billion to overhaul wastewater infrastructure nationwide.

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