The Gross Reason Swimming At The Beach Isn't As Safe As We Think

For many people, the beach is one of their favorite destinations on earth. There's nothing quite like the temporary escape of a "beach day" that lets us enjoy soft sand between our toes and the relaxing sounds of waves crashing in the distance. A trip to the beach can also have many therapeutic effects, such as calming the nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety, and boosting vitamin D levels, as described by WebMD. Besides a nasty sunburn, stray sand following you into the next day, and the slight possibility of encountering a shark, there's nothing not to love about swimming at the beach, right?

While spending time at the beach certainly has its benefits, what you find out next might scare you away from swimming at the beach in the future. The Environment America Research & Policy Center notes that beach water can become polluted with stormwater runoff and sewage that carries potentially harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites. The manure used on factory farms can contaminate creeks, rivers, and streams when it rains. Waste can also be left behind by boats, pets, harmful algal blooms, and wildlife, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As it turns out, the fecal contamination of beach water may be more common than one would expect. 

The prevalence of polluted beach water

When you're enjoying a beach getaway, swimming in fecal matter is likely the last concern on your mind. However, 55% of all beaches evaluated in the United States in 2022 were identified as being potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day due to fecal contamination, according to Environment America Research & Policy Center. More specifically, 84% of beaches on the Gulf Coast were declared as potentially unsafe for at least one day, along with 70% of beaches on the West Coast. On 25% of test days, 363 beaches were contaminated with potentially harmful amounts of feces. The Beach Action Value (BAV) tool was used to measure the pollution levels in these results. The researchers acknowledge that the beaches could have also been contaminated on days when tests were not conducted. 

If pollution is negatively impacting the quality of beach water, program beaches will warn the public and may close the beach, as explained by the EPA. The Environment America Research & Policy Center report noted that 1 in 12 swimming days was disrupted in 2022, and over 8,700 beach closures and warnings were issued in the Great Lakes and coastal areas. 

The health effects of swimming in contaminated water

Not only does the idea of swimming in fecal matter sound disgusting, but it can be harmful to our health. According to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, individuals swimming in contaminated water may experience gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. They may also develop a fever, headaches, or infections. 

Groups most susceptible to illness after swimming in contaminated water include the elderly, children, and immunocompromised individuals. A 2022 study published in PLoS One found that children who swam in water contaminated with Enterococcus were more likely to experience gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms than adolescents and adults. 

Simply being exposed to contaminated sand can make people sick, as explained by the Natural Resources Defense Council. In addition, people who haven't swam can still be exposed to the toxins released by harmful algae blooms (HABs). HABs are associated with potentially dangerous symptoms, like dizziness, seizures, cardiovascular issues, and paralysis. 

While all of this may sound scary, you don't have to cancel your next beach day just yet. Your chances of being exposed to water pollution and getting sick can be decreased if you take the right steps. The National Weather Service suggests checking beach advisories and keeping an eye out for flags indicating the beach is unsafe for swimming. Usually, these flags are located near lifeguard stands. You should also wash your hands after being exposed to sand and avoid swimming with open wounds, according to the EPA