Depending on where you live, you might end up with more than a tan if you head to the beach this summer: The EPA estimates that up to 3.5 million people get sick each year from contact with raw sewage that flows into the water when drains overflow. The real number might be even higher, since if you happen to get pink eye or a stomach bug after a weekend of swimming, you might not automatically suspect your local beach and report it.
Not all beaches are equally filled with fecal matter. In an annual report released today, the Natural Resources Defense Council lists the best and worst beaches across the country, based on samples from more than 3,500 locations. This searchable map shows details about each location; more than 10% of all the samples collected last year failed EPA standards for safety.
Some of the worst beaches are in Ohio, Alaska, and Mississippi, though it’s hard to predict by region exactly how well a beach will score. One of the best beaches, designated a "superstar" by NRDC for consistently meeting water safety standards over the last five years, is in Orange County, not far down the coast from one of the worst beaches in the country in Malibu.
"Some beach managers and some communities have really invested in reducing polluted runoff," says Jon Devine, a senior attorney at NRDC. Green roofs, parks, and state-of-the-art bioswales can help catch water when it rains hard in cities, so sewers will be less likely to overflow into nearby waterways.
This year, NRDC is also pushing for another solution: Cleaning up the streams and wetlands that link up with beaches, many of which aren't fully protected under the Clean Water Act. "Those wetlands act like sponges for polluted stormwater," Devine explains. The EPA is currently taking public comments on a new rule that would better protect these smaller bodies of water.
In the meantime, before you jump in the water, check out how dirty it actually is. And if it's recently rained hard, consider staying on the sand.