Tempted to play hooky and go for a swim with the kids? Before you bodysurf on the swells, be sure you and your family will be as healthy when you leave as when you arrived.

For the fifth consecutive year, water contaminated with human and animal waste resulted in more than 18,000 closing and advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches in 2009. This puts annual closings and advisories at their sixth-highest level in the 20-year history of NRDC’s Testing the Waters report, which examines pollution and public health concerns at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches--check out the overview of the nation's 200 most popular beaches. Because the BP oil disaster has polluted beaches around the Gulf, Testing the Waters is also providing coverage of current events at Gulf beaches in addition to providing information about last year's beachwater quality

The risks of bacteria in water range from the unpleasant, such as ear, nose and throat infections, to the serious, including cholera, hepatitis and amoebic dysentery. Even baches regarded as safe can hold startlingly high levels of bacteria, found Andrew Rogerson, who headed up an EPA study of Florida beach sand. Bacteria concentrate in sand as water rises and recedes with the tides, leaving both the wet sand and the dry sand just beyond it more heavily contaminated than the water. Because of this, it is most important to keep beach sand out of the mouths of toddlers. Keeping your hands out of it or washing them after playing in the sand is also a good idea.

Be careful of the elements as well. Sunscreen and sun-protective clothing will shield your skin. Check for undertow or riptide warnings, and swim parallel to the shore if you intend to swim a long distance.

Pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with a weakened immune system need to be particularly diligent about checking for advisories, but everyone should follow these basic precautions at the beach:

  • For recent beach closings and information on whether your favorite swimming spot is harboring unsafe levels of bacteria, see the EPA's Beach Advisory and Closing Online Notification (BEACON) site and Earth911's Beach Water Quality pages. Beaches that aren't listed may not be monitored regularly.
  • Swallowing water is the most frequent way swimmers are exposed to bacteria, so keep your head above the waves.
  • Avoid swimming near flowing storm drain outlets, outfalls or runoff ditches. A study of Santa Monica beaches found that swimmers near storm drains had a 57 percent greater chance of developing a fever than those swimming more than 400 yards away.
  • Don't swim alone, and don't dive into water you haven't been in previously.
  • Don't swim after a heavy rain or near trash.
  • Keep an eye on the waves—don't be caught unawares by large ones.
  • Shower after visiting the beach.
  • Disinfect cuts or abrasions to avoid infection.
  • Check those with suppressed immune systems for cuts both before and after swimming.

To help preserve the health of our beaches:

  • Urge Congress to pass the  Clean Coastal Environment and Public Health Act.
  • Use sunscreens with plant-based ingredients, as some chemical preservatives and stabilizers in sunscreens can damage coral reefs.
  • To protect your beach, contact the Surfrider Foundation (surfrider.org).
  • Since stormwater runoff accounts for the majority of closures, support measures to reduce runoff in your community.

Tell us how your beach is! Use our comments section below to let us know what you've run into on the beach and what your community is doing to prevent ocean pollution.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomeppy/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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