Toxic Beaches: Hundreds of Closures and Health Warnings in 2020

Spotty Tracking, Confusing Language and Limited Public Outreach Hamper Water Contamination Monitoring
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For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, September 30, 2020

WASHINGTON – Toxic algae and bacteria forced the closure of at least 116 U.S. beaches and triggered health warnings at 162 more this spring and summer, according to an investigation by the Environmental Working Group.

From May 5 to September 10, health officials and other entities in 36 states issued 278 closures of or warnings about lake and ocean beaches, EWG found through a search of online news reports nationwide and a sampling of public health agency websites in nine states in the Southeast and upper Midwest.

“We found a troubling mishmash of public safety measures for toxic algae and bacterial contamination of beaches across the country,” said Anne Schechinger, EWG senior analyst of economics and a coauthor of the report. “Dozens of different government agencies and other organizations issued warnings with inconsistent wording, unclear direction and insufficient explanations of human health threats.”

EWG identified 96 different entities that issued warnings. More than half – 56 – were health officials at the city, county, regional or state level. Others included cities, the Army Corps of Engineers, state agencies that oversee parks or the environment, and nonprofit organizations.

They relied on an inconsistent array of terms for their warnings, such as beach advisory, beach closure, contact advisory, contamination advisory, health advisory, high bacteria advisory, recreational advisory, swim advisory and water quality advisory.

Sometimes it wasn’t clear what was actually meant by a warning, or whether a beach was closed to human activity. And many warnings were vague about why they were issued – for example, recommending that people stay out of the water but not specifying why going into the water could be unsafe. Most advisories were posted online temporarily, and almost no entity archived older warnings.

Michigan had the most reported closures and advisories by far, with 69. Florida had 22, and Iowa and Ohio each had 19. But more warnings could simply indicate that water quality monitoring in a given state is more thorough, or that it is easier to find information about warnings.

The bacteria that spurred the advisories were E. coli and enterococci, which are found in the digestive systems of people and animals. Some strains of both bacteria can cause serious illness.

A toxic algae outbreak occurs when an algae bloom – made up of microscopic organisms called cyanobacteria – emits toxins that are dangerous to humans, pets and wildlife.

Farm runoff, a major cause of water pollution that largely is not regulated, is closely linked to toxic algae outbreaks and bacterial contamination. It is likely that both issues coexist in many locations, but most health departments and other agencies monitor for one contaminant only.

“Our investigation calls into stark relief the need for a nationwide beach monitoring program,” Schechinger said. “It also points to the need to hold the agriculture industry accountable for water pollution – and even more importantly, to prevent pollution before it contaminates our waters.”

Because no standard system exists for monitoring water quality at beaches, EWG’s report is almost certainly missing many sites where warnings were issued. And there is no way to know how much contamination was not monitored at all or was found but not covered in the news media.

EWG tracks all news reports of algae outbreaks throughout the year. All of its work on the issue can be found at www.ewg.org/toxicalgae.

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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. Visit www.ewg.org for more information.

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