Testing the waters at Pittsburghers' favorite beaches

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As the Fourth of July draws closer, many Pittsburghers are planning to celebrate the holiday by escaping from the stifling humidity of the city by traveling to the open and breezy coastal beaches of nearby states.

However, a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council says some beaches may be hazardous to your health.

The environmental group analyzed pollution data from nearly 3,500 beaches in 30 states, giving high marks to some and failing grades to others.

Many states that are favorites of Pennsylvania vacationers -- including Delaware, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey --  ranked at the top of the council's list for water quality.

Other states did not fare so well, with ocean, lake or river beaches often exceeding the Beach Action Value, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new, tougher standard for assessing swimmer safety.

Thanks to polluted Lake Erie beaches, Pennsylvania ranked 22nd out of 30 states in beach-water quality. Swimmers should  be aware that pollution levels vary beach-by-beach within states.

South Carolina ranked 24th, with Myrtle Beach samples exceeding the BAV standard 23 percent of the time, the council said.

In response to the report, Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, released this statement: “We know our beaches are healthy and suitable for all visitors to the Myrtle Beach area. The testing of our ocean water by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is very important and helpful in ensuring the cleanliness of our beaches.”

Mr. Dean also criticized the NRDC, saying that its “alarmist approach exhibits inconsistent and unreliable tendencies, which leads to sensationalized findings. It is true that storm water runoff can occasionally boost test levels higher than normal, but it is for limited sites for a limited amount of time.” He added that the Grand Strand beaches are clean and safe.

Ohio ranked 30th in the rankings.

In all, 10 percent of total water samples in the 30 states showed unacceptable levels of contamination. The council's senior attorney, Jon Devine, said that's a slight uptick from last year's findings, and he attributed the change to the EPA‘‍s stricter standard. 

On the whole, Delaware ranked first in beach-water quality, followed by New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maryland and North Carolina. Michigan ranked seventh.

The council also included a list of “superstar beaches” -- including Assateague State Park in Maryland and a portion of Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina -- that have maintained low pollution levels for five years.

At the other end of the spectrum, 17 beaches were labeled “repeat offenders” due, Mr. Devine said, to ”consistently failing to meet public-safety benchmarks 25 percent of the time for the past five years.“ This list included Beachwood Beach West on the Toms River in New Jersey and multiple beaches in Ohio.

According to the EPA, pollution sources include boating waste, children who enter the water with dirty diapers and storm-water runoff.

“Storm-water runoff often includes animal and human waste, bacteria and viruses and results in all of our urban slobber flowing into our waterways,” said Steve Fleischli, the council's water program director.

Heavy rainfall can also cause sewer systems to overflow and discharge raw sewage into waterways. This all culminates in a host of pathogens plaguing America's beaches.

These can cause health problems ranging from minor ear and skin infections or stomach flu to major problems such as cholera and hepatitis. In addition to the physical toll that waterborne illness takes on beach-goers, they also come with a price tag. In 2010, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimated that waterborne illnesses cost the health care system more than $500 million annually.‍

“‍There can be hidden dangers lurking in many of the waterways in the form of bacteria and viruses, and many elderly and young children are likely to fall prey to contamination in the water,“ warned Mr. Fleischli.

The council is encouraging people to take the protection of America's waterways into their own hands by joining support for a still-tougher Clean Water Protection Rule. ”Americans need the Obama administration to finalize the Clean Water Protection rule, making it safer to swim in lakes and oceans,“ Mr. Fleischli said.

The initiative, the council said, would help protect 2 million miles of streams.

Before packing the car full of sunscreen, swimsuits and an array of red, white, and blue paraphernalia, travelers can take into the account the water quality of their beach vacation destination. For a list of individual beach water quality levels and safety tips, visit www.nrdc.org/beaches.

Individual states also track water quality for their beaches. Among them: Michigan’‍s data can be accessed at www.deq.state.mi.us/beach and Maryland‘‍s information is available at www.marylandhealthybeaches.com/current_conditions.php. 

Campbell North: cnorth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613.

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