The scariest things threatening the nation's ocean and lake beaches this summer aren't great white sharks, stinging jellyfish, or snapping turtles. They are harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites deposited by sewage and storm water runoff.
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According to the National Resource Defense Council's (NRDC) annual report card on America's beaches, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, released Wednesday morning, in 2012, there were more than 20,000 beach closings and advisory days. Eighty percent of those were because of harmful levels of bacteria as opposed to other factors such as dangerous weather conditions.
"What parents need to know is that it's possible that your kids can get sick by swimming in polluted water," Jon Devine, a senior attorney for the NRDC who has worked on the study for a number of years, tells Yahoo! Shine. "Our new report focuses on the testing done on contaminants at coastal and lakeside beaches that can make people ill."
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According to the report, water pollution can cause serious illnesses including stomach flu, dysentery, pink eye, hepatitis, and skin rashes. "For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can even be fatal," it warns.
The NRDC offers these tips for avoiding contamination and protecting our nation's beaches:
Before going to the beach, check the NRDC vacation beaches website, the EPA's Beach Advisory and Closing On-Line Notification website, or call your local beach manager.
Avoid beaches with visible discharge pipes. "The biggest reason that beaches are closed because of contamination is from storm water runoff," says Devine. "This is the slop from roadways and other hard surfaces. The thing people might not know is that it's by and large not treated. It's put into concrete pipes and sent into our water bodies."
In urban and suburban areas where there is a higher risk of contaminated runoff, avoid swimming 24 hours after a rainstorm. This is when pollution levels are most elevated. After a heavy rainfall, wait 72 hours.
Clean up after yourself at the beach. Clean all pet waste and make sure your child wears a swim diaper if they aren't toilet trained. Don't leave garbage that lures sea gulls and other scavenging animals. Wild animal waste is a significant contributor to contaminated beaches.
At your own home, direct runoff to the soil, not the street. Sweep your driveway and sidewalk instead hosing down and direct your rain gutters onto soil, gravel, or grass rather than a hard surface.
The report also provides a guide to America's 200 most popular beaches. It lists their top-rated "Superstar" beaches-ones that have exceptionally strong testing and safety practices, as well as the "Repeat Offenders" -beaches that chronically exhibit high bacteria counts.
The NRDC's 5-Star Beaches
Gulf Shores Public Beach (Baldwin County)
Gulf State Park Pavilion (Baldwin County)
Bolsa Chica Beach (Orange County)
Newport Beach: 38th Street (Orange County)
Newport Beach: 52nd/53rd Street (Orange County)
San Clemente State Beach: Avenida Calafia (Orange County)
San Clemente State Beach: Las Palmeras (Orange County)
Dewey Beach: Dagsworthy (Sussex County)
Rehoboth Beach (Sussex County)
Ocean City at Beach 6 (Worcester County)
Bay City State Recreation Area (Bay County)
Park Point Franklin Park/13th Street South Beach Park Point (St. Louis County)
Lafayette Community Club Beach (St. Louis County)
Hampton Beach State Park (Rockingham County)
Wallis Sands Beach (Rockingham County)
The NRDC's Repeat Offenders
Avalon Beach 100 feet west of the Green Pleasure Pier (Los Angeles County)
Avalon Beach 50 feet east of the Green Pleasure Pier (Los Angeles County)
Avalon Beach 50 feet west of the Green Pleasure Pier (Los Angeles County)
Avalon Beach East of the Casino Arch at the steps (Los Angeles County)
Doheny State Beach, 1000' South Outfall (Orange County)
Doheny State Beach, 2000' South Outfall (Orange County)
Doheny State Beach, 3000' South Outfall (Orange County
Doheny State Beach, North Beach (Orange County)
Doheny State Beach, North of San Juan Creek (Orange County)
Doheny State Beach, Surfzone at Outfall (Orange County)
Poche County Beach (Orange County)
Lake Jeorse Park Beach I (Lake County)
Lake Jeorse Park Beach II (Lake County)
Beachwood Beach in (Ocean County)
Ontario Beach (Monroe County)
Lakeshore Park (Ashtabula County)
Euclid State Park (Cuyahoga County)
Villa Angela State Park (Cuyahoga County)
Edson Creek (Erie County)
South Shore Beach (Milwaukee County)
Devine points out that according to current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criteria, it's acceptable for one out of 28 people to get sick from the water at a given beach. "That's one kid per classroom," he says. "We wouldn't consider that OK for food safety standards. Imagine if one kid per class got sick from school cafeteria food?"
If you would like to learn more about avoiding contaminated beaches and how to support programs that clean up polluted water, visit the NRDC website.